While the Penguins and Capitals take part in what is almost a rote annual exercise at this point elsewhere in the East, since the Bruins made it clear they had their shit together this year around Thanksgiving, this has been the de facto conference final that they and the Lightning have been on a collision course for. And it’s sure to provide some of the most entertaining hockey of the post-season.
Goaltending: While Andrei Vasilevskiy clearly slowed at the end of his first full season with a starter’s workload, his full body of work was enough to earn him a nod as a Vezina finalist, while the other two square off in the West’s premiere matchup tonight as well. Vas kicked it into gear nicely against the Devils in the first round, allowing 10 goals in five games, and sporting a .941 overall save percentage, and .947 at evens. That’ll play anywhere, particularly against a one-player forward corps that the Devils sported, but at the very least he did his job about as efficiently as could be asked in a One Versus Eight opening round matchup. As for Tuukka, while he had a bit of a bounce back year in the regular season with a .917 overall and .924 at evens, which were average enough to backstop one of the league’s top possession teams, but his .899 overall against the Leafs doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence moving forward. Toronto’s forward group was filled with plenty of bad shot makers, and Boston territorially plowed them, but Rask was as big a contributing factor as any for them needing seven games, and needing to come back in said game 7, and things won’t be letting up for him with regard to skill level in this series.
Defense: The script has been flipped on these two teams from years past, where the Bruins at one point had solid depth behind Zdeno Chara in their 2011-2013 deep runs, and the Bolts just simply didn’t have much past Victor Hedman that wasn’t a barely-ambulatory bookshelf of a blueliner like Braydon Coburn, Jason Garrison, etc. Now, with the acquisition of Ryan McDonagh and the development of Mikhail Sergachev, and Hedman playing some of his best hockey with his first campaign as a Norris finalist (well overdue), even with Coburn, Andrej Sustr, and the ruins of Dan Girardi in this corps, the sensually oily Jon Cooper has plenty of options for line matching rather than just have Hedman play 45 minutes a night, which he damn near pulled off in 2015.
For the Bruins, during the regular season, the emergence of moon-faced mouth breather Charlie McAvoy allowed a now 40 year old Chara to downshift into a centerfielder but still on the top pairing, but against the Leafs, the pairing had issues dealing with the speed of Toronto even with home ice advantage, and the pairing together posted a less than appealing 45.21% share of shot attempts when paired together for 110 minutes of even strength time over 7 games. Torey Krug is still the quintessential bum slaying 3rd pairing guy that will need to have his zone starts and matchups cherry picked when Bruce Cassidy can get them, but behind that, there’s just a lot of bland gruel in Nick Holden, Kevan Miller, and whatever’s left of Adam McQuaid. Without home ice in this series, there are matchups to be found here.
Forwards: This is where things start to get fun. Obviously the Bruins boast one of the best lines in hockey in Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and anthropomorphic plantar’s wart Brad Marchand. Pastrnak was particularly excellent in the first round with 13 points, 10 of which came at even strength. But much of that stems from Toronto having zero answers for that unit on their blue line. And for all the numbers he produces, whenever Brad Marchand faces the slightest bit of pushback from the opposition, he tends to be missing on the score sheet while Bergeron carries the weight of the Bruins’ world on his shoulders. David Krejci has been one of the more productive #2 centers in all of hockey for years, and that will likely remain the case, as he’s just a solid playoff performer, and is a great bit of trivia: Krejci is the only player to ever lead the post season in scoring twice (’11 and ’13) and not win a Conn Smythe. Depth scoring has come in the form of Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk, who will be getting a lot sterner test in matchups than anything the Leafs had to offer.
For Tampa, this is as solid as they’ve ever been. Nikita Kucherov was 3rd in the league in scoring, and Steven Stamkos well over a point per game with 86 in 78 games. Cooper tends to keep those two paired together with an interchangable third winger, and in the case of the first round J.T. Miller, also of the McDonagh trade found himself riding shotgun. But for the most part his forward groupings are modular, particularly with the development this year of Braden Point and Yanni Gourd, in addition to the quitely-still-here Tyler Johnson, and Diet Hossa Ondrej Palat. Alex Killorn is still running into things as well, and Cedric Pauquette is still convinced he’s Bob Gainey. But either way, there are a lot of different ways Cooper can deploy this grouping, and they’re far more seasoned and responsible than what Toronto had while having an equal amount of finish.
Prediction: While the local Boston media and fanbase is certainly louder and more confident creating more brand recognition for their known commodities, this is quite simply a deeper Tampa team and has been all year. If the B’s don’t get production from their do-everything top line, they’re kind of dead in the water, and if Stamkos and Kucherov match them in terms of production, Tampa has proven secondary scoring, while also having a goalie who is playing better and a more versatile blue line this year than in years past. And for all of the jokes we make about Jon Cooper and the Liberator he brings with him on road trips “just in case”, he’s actually shown himself to be distinctly “not a moron”, and will use the matchups he has to his advantage. The B’s will get theirs at times because they are a good team and hockey’s gonna hockey, but there’s just not enough to match everything Tampa’s got. Bolts in 6.