Playoff hockey keeps one guessing, so here are four guesses
In a seven game series, most of the time, teams find a familiarity with one another. That might not happen with the Bruins and Lightning. So far, the series has included three very different games, with the Lightning showing some rust in game one, a lot of fight in game two, and overwhelming depth in game three. The Bruins, meanwhile, looked like an offensive force in game one and have been relying on physical play since in hopes of slowing down the Bolts.
At 2-1, the series is still very much up in the air and can change shape in a hurry. In honor of Game Four, our preview includes four different ways one can look at the Bolts and Bruins.
1: The Lightning are finding their true form
While Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov haven’t been mainstays on the score sheet in the first three games of this series, the depth the Lightning have displayed in games two and three indicate that they might be hitting their stride once again. Game-winning performances from Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat have elevated the Bolts to a new level.
It certainly seemed that in the past two games the Lightning have had the Bruins’ number. Much of that can be brought back to coach Jon Cooper, who has developed a strategy against Boston that has made the Lightning look better each game and left the Bruins frustrated.
This option would suggest the Lightning are back to the Stanley Cup aspirations that people had for them back in December, when Tampa Bay just ran roughshod over the rest of the league.
2: The Point Line is stepping up
It appears that the Boston Bruins’ main strategy for this series was to focus on three specific players: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman. They have been successful at making three of the best players in the game look decidedly human in games one through three, but the strategy is still looking a bit shoddy. After all, in absence of Stamkos and Kucherov’s goals, the Lightning have simply turned to Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat to get a leg up in this series and reclaim Home Ice Advantage.
If this series remains a question of which of these two teams has a deeper well of talent, the Lightning are in a great position. The Bruins have been most effective with their top line, and that is to be expected from Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. Outside of those three, Boston has struggled to get any momentum.
For Boston to even this series up on Friday night, they will need contributions outside of their top players. The top line, plus the still-frightening Zdeno Chara and netminder Tuukka Rask have been doing more than their share for the Bruins, but Bruce Cassidy’s crew needs to show some depth and respond to Tampa Bay’s contributions from their other lines. As good as their top guys are, asking five players to carry a series against one of the NHL’s best teams is more than a big ask.
3: The Lightning could go in for the kill tonight
While the Bruins took game one by a decisive 6-2 margin and looked excellent in the process, the first two periods were much closer than the final score suggests they would have been. In fact, for most of those first two periods it was Tampa Bay who controlled the puck and controlled the pace of play. The problems were that the Lightning had uncharacteristic issues puckhandling, Tuukka Rask had a great game, and the Boston Bruins scored on just about every look they had on net.
Play that game over and over again, and it’s unlikely both of those things would happen again. The argument could be made that the first game of this series was a bit freakish and out of character for Tampa Bay, while Boston played at their absolute best. In other words, outside of one Murphy’s Law game, it could be suggested that the Lightning have been firmly in control of the action this series.
If the Bruins’ shot total continues to be held down, and Andrei Vasilevskiy retains the world-class form he found in the second period of Wednesday night’s game, a series that looked worrisome for Lightning fans just five days ago could be considerably shorter than expected.
4: Listen for whistles
Bruins fans would suggest that Tampa Bay had help from officiating, especially in game two where The Striped Ones made a number of questionable calls. Those fans might do well to notice the seventeen penalty minutes awarded to one Cedric Paquette on Wednesday night, negating a charging penalty against David Backes and removing a player who has contributed a lot to this series in ways statistics fail to measure.
Referees have taken center stage in this round of the playoffs, at least for one fanbase. In a way, this gives hope to the Boston fans: If the referees give more favorable calls to Boston, the Bruins can get back in this series in the blink of an eye. In actual hockey terms, this makes plenty of sense as the Bruins are excellent on the man advantage and Tampa Bay has had some weakness in the penalty killing department this season. However, the ones with the whistles are wild cards. Nobody can predict what they will do, or which fanbase they will enrage. Therefore, counting on them to help a team out is a flawed strategy.
On Thursday afternoon, our own Rock Riley got a game four preview from the one and only Corey Long of NHL.com. As always, check out the Rock Riley Show, weekday afternoons from 3-6 on Sports Talk 1040 Tampa Bay.