The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning appeared to be on a collision course for another postseason matchup in 2019. But the Columbus Blue Jackets had other ideas, upsetting the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bolts in a sweep following Tampa’s best regular season in franchise history.
A year later, the two teams will meet again in the second round after the Bolts avenged their loss to the Blue Jackets last spring and the Bruins earning another series win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I felt like it. I assumed last year would be the year — I don’t think anyone saw the Columbus series coming. We assumed we’d get them in the second round,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said on the inevitable Round 2 matchup. “We [both] took care of business, here we are the second round this year even though it’s a different format.”
There’s no love lost between these two upper-echelon teams. The Bruins earned their first Presidents’ Trophy since 2014 and the Bolts found their groove late in the regular season. Yet, Tampa got the better of Boston in its five matchups this season, winning four of those tilts including its round-robin win a few weeks back.
Both teams bring their share of skill and physicality into their third postseason series this decade.
The two previous best-of-seven matchups provided moments from well-known commodities, like Nathan Horton, Patrice Bergeron and Steven Stamkos, and unsung heroes, including Dan Girardi in Game 4 of 2018 and Tyler Seguin’s first two career postseason tilts nearly a decade ago.
This has all the makings of a grueling seven-game series inside the Toronto bubble. Both teams are on a vengeance tour following bitter season ending losses over 12 months ago. Here are three keys the Bruins must accomplish to extend their version of payback.
Jaroslav Halak must shine against Andrei Vasilevskiy
Even without Vezina Trophy finalist Tuukka Rask in Games 3, 4 and 5, the Bruins sill had a favorable goaltender matchup with Jaroslav Halak taking over. While he didn’t look all that sharp in Game 4, the Slovak performed well for the most part helping backstop the Bruins with good efforts in Games 3 and 5.
The Bruins benefitted from Carolina’s goaltending carousel featuring James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. They won’t be so fortunate in this round as they face another Vezina finalist in Andrei Vasilveskiy.
Halak, meanwhile, hasn’t faced Nikita Kucherov and the high-octane Bolts since his March, 2018, as a member of the Islanders. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Tereavinen and Carolina’s skilled blue-line created their share of quality chances against Halak in the last round, but make no mistake, he’ll be up against elite upper-echelon talent throughout this second-round series.
Both goalies will see their share of pucks this series, and both won’t have a favorable schedule. The Bruins and Bolts have two sets of back-to-backs in Round 2 — between Games 2 and 3 and Games 6 and 7. Cassidy and Jon Cooper each have a difficult decision ahead once the time comes: will they lean on their starters for all seven games or do they decide to put in their respective backups for at least one of those two sets?
Vasilevskiy may have the upper hand on paper, but Halak’s postseason experience gives the Bruins a chance. They’d love nothing more than for Halak to channel his stellar play from a decade ago where he led the Canadiens to an unlikely appearance in the East Finals.
Better 5v5 play
Boston’s special teams shined in their win over Carolina converting on 26 percent of its power play chances while adding a shorthanded tally from Sean Kuraly in Game 3. They didn’t struggle at even strength per se — outscoring the Hurricanes 8-7 in 5v5 play — but the Bruins know they can’t rely heavily on the power play against a deep Lightning bunch.
Just look back to the last playoff series after the top line shined in Game 1. The Bruins scored five of their six goals at even strength to kick off the series, but only managed a pair of 5v5 tallies the rest of the way. They were completely held without an even strength lamp lighter in Games 3-5 as well.
The Bolts, meanwhile, failed to convert on a single power play attempt against Columbus — all one-goal wins — yet still advanced after scoring 13 of their 14 tallies in 5v5.
The Bruins and Lightning are among the best puck possession teams in the league. Their skill and size provide ample opportunities for scoring chances, exposing mismatches and creating penalties. Both teams have excellent special teams — even with Tampa being held without a power play tally against John Tortorella’s stingy Blue Jackets squad — and will try to weaponize that prowess throughout the series.
But make no mistake, the series will be won in the trenches. The Bruins need to find a rhythm in even-strength situations. Otherwise, they’ll be heading back to Boston with another series loss to their divisional rivals.
Bottom six must hold their own
It’s hard to find the weaknesses these team possess. Surely the Bruins and Lightning aren’t perfect, but their attention to detail in all three zones provides excitement on a nightly basis.
Every matchup is pretty even across the board. If anything, the Lightning have the slightest edge over the Bruins after adding the likes of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodreau at the trade deadline to beef up their bottom six. For this, Cassidy opted to insert Nick Ritchie — another trade deadline commodity — into the third line to start the series hoping he’d go toe to toe with the gritty forwards of Tampa’s bottom-six.
The initial Ritchie experience didn’t last long in the first week or so in the bubble. Nor did Anders Bjork, who will replace Jack Studnicka on the third line with Charlie Coyle centering. The slightest of errors by Bjork or Ritchie may force Cassidy’s hand again down the road, especially with Studnicka looking more comfortable in a playoff environment.
The Bruins have one of the better fourth lines in the league. Cassidy feels comfortable putting Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom (or Par Lindholm) against opposing top lines. The trio may get their share of assignments against Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat with hopes of providing more favorable matchups for the top-six.
With the top line finding their groove again and — finally — a formidable second line featuring David ‘Playoff’ Krejci, Ondrej Kase and Jake DeBrusk, the Bruins should still feel good about their chances. But they’ll need all hands on deck in this second-round ‘vengeance’ battle with a trip to Edmonton on the line.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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