BOSTON (AP) — The Boston Bruins know what to expect from the Tampa Bay Lightning — three strong offensive forwards and one unusual defensive alignment.
Going seven days without a game gave Bruins coaches plenty of time to prepare for the Eastern Conference finals.
“Every day our head was in the upcoming series,” coach Claude Julien said Friday. “The players are the ones that are given days off and are told to just kind of get away from the rink for a bit and then come back. We have to have things prepared for them.”
The preparations are just about over.
The Bruins and Lightning, who have the same regular-season and postseason records, start the best-of-seven series Saturday night.
By the time the first puck is dropped, Tampa Bay will have gone nine days without a game since it swept the Washington Capitals. Two days later, the Bruins completed their four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I know a lot of people said they were hoping that (Bruins) series would last longer and that they would get tired out,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “I was actually hoping for the opposite so that we’d both be in the same boat and we will be.”
The Bruins have dominated the Lightning in Boston with a 23-4-6 record. But the scoring skills of Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier and a 1-3-1 defensive alignment that clogs the neutral zone could silence Bruins fans.
St. Louis was second in the NHL in both points (99) and assists (68), Stamkos was second with 45 goals, and LeCavalier had 25 goals and 29 assists in 65 games. In 11 playoff games, they’ve combined for 15 goals. And Sean Bergenheim, a third-line wing, has a surprising seven goals.
“Every team you play has got some players that you’ve got to keep a close eye on,” Julien said. “Hopefully, they’re thinking the same way about our players. … We’ve handled other teams pretty well and we’re going to have to handle those guys just as well if we plan on having success.”
Defenseman Zdeno Chara, at 6-foot-9 without skates, will have a big role in that.
“He’s the biggest guy in the league and that stick is pretty long,” Lecavalier said. “He’s a great defenseman, and when you play against him, you have to play behind him. You can’t just use your strength because you’ll lose. You have to play behind him and get pucks behind him and make him skate as much as you can.”
The Lightning also present a defensive challenge with their 1-3-1 setup in which a checker pressures the puck carrier. Then the Bruins must get past a three-man line in the neutral zone. If they just dump the puck in, the defenseman can get it and start the transition to offense.
In their 11 playoff games with that system, the Lightning have allowed 24 goals.
“It’s a big part of their game and they’ve made the last two teams pay a lot for it,” said Milan Lucic, Boston’s leading regular-season goal scorer who broke a 20-game drought with two goals in his last game. “We’ve got to be smart with that. … our (defensemen) have done a good job supporting each other. And as forwards we’ve done a good job giving them outlets.”
The Bruins know they can’t make major changes in the way they play. After all, it’s gotten them to the conference finals for the first time since 1992.
“They’ve been successful with what they’ve been doing and I think we’ve been successful for what we’ve been doing,” said Boston’s Chris Kelly, who is expected to move up to second-line center while Patrice Bergeron recovers from a mild concussion. “You can get over-focused and overanalyze what your opponent’s going to do.”
The Bruins are playing perhaps their best hockey of the season with eight wins in nine games. They’re 4-0 in overtime in the playoffs and, backed by goalie Tim Thomas, allowed only seven goals in four games with the Flyers.
But their leading playoff scorer, Bergeron, second in the NHL in faceoffs won in this postseason, is expected to miss at least the opener.
Lightning left wing Simon Gagne is likely to return after sitting out three games with a concussion.
Last year, he scored the final goal in Philadelphia’s 4-3 win over Boston in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. The Flyers lost the first three games then overcame a 3-0 deficit to score the last four goals in the finale with the Bruins.
“They’re on a mission this year,” Gagne said. “Just watching the last two games when they played against Philly (this year), they understand what it takes to win now. They learned a lot from last year.”
The Bruins were 3-1 against the Lightning this season, although three of those games were before Tampa Bay obtained goalie Dwayne Roloson. He didn’t play in the fourth.
He’s allowed just 23 goals in the playoffs, an average of 2.01 per game. Thomas, a Vezina Trophy finalist, is right behind at 2.03 for the Bruins.
“They’ve got a great defensive corps. They’ve got a great goalie. They’ve got some veterans really stepping it up offensively,” Stamkos said. “It will be an exciting series.”
No. 3 BRUINS (46-25-11) vs. No. 5 LIGHTNING (46-25-11)
How they got here: Boston beat No. 6 Montreal 4-3 and No. 2 Philadelphia 4-0. Tampa Bay beat No. 4 Pittsburgh 4-3 and No. 1 Washington 4-0.
2009-10 series record: Bruins 3-1.
Playoff History: First meeting.
BOSTON: The Bruins are in the conference finals for the first time since 1992. They haven’t reached the Stanley Cup finals since 1990 and haven’t won the championship since 1972. … Tim Thomas hasn’t missed a beat in the playoffs following his stellar regular season. Thomas is second in the postseason in goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.937), trailing only Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson. Thomas has won five consecutive starts, tying his career high in the playoffs. … Nathan Horton is making the most of his first NHL playoff appearance, posting five goals and five assists and scoring at least one point in five straight games. Brad Marchand, with five goals and six assists, also has a five-game point streak. David Krejci has points in four straight games, with four goals and five assists in that span. He scored the winning goal in three of the four games against Philadelphia in the second round. … Patrice Bergeron leads Boston in scoring with 12 points, including 10 assists, but will miss at least the series opener because of a concussion sustained against Philadelphia in Game 4. Tyler Seguin, a 19-year-old rookie, will likely take Bergeron’s place in the lineup after being a healthy scratch for Boston’s first 11 postseason games. Seguin had 11 goals and 11 assists in 74 games after being the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL draft. He would be the first player since New York Islanders defenseman Darius Kasparaitis in 1993 to play in the conference finals the year after being drafted in the top five. … Saturday night’s opener will be the Bruins’ first game in eight days.
TAMPA BAY: Tampa Bay is in the conference finals for the second time, following its appearance in 2004 when the Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup. … The Lightning have only four wins in 35 games played in Boston. … Dwayne Roloson has been the difference-maker, and not showing any signs of slowing down at age 41. Roloson is first in the playoffs with eight wins, a goals-against average of 2.01 and a .941 save percentage. His position of No. 1 goalie at Massachusetts-Lowell in 1993 was the reason Bruins counterpart Tim Thomas decided to attend Vermont instead of serving as Roloson’s backup. … Roloson didn’t face the Bruins this season either with the Lightning or with the New York Islanders before he was traded to Tampa Bay on Jan. 1. … Tampa Bay has outscored playoff opponents 38-24, but leading scorer Martin St. Louis — who has six goals and 13 points — is a minus-5. … Sean Bergenheim has been the breakout offensive star for Tampa Bay with seven goals in 11 games. His offense might be needed even more in this round if forward Simon Gagne has to sit out longer because of a concussion that forced him to miss three games vs. Washington. D Pavel Kubina has also missed three games after his head hit the glass. He hasn’t worked out since he was injured and there is no timetable for his return. … Ryan Malone and Steven Stamkos tied for the team lead in scoring against Boston in the regular season with three points. Stamkos scored two goals in the series. Malone had three assists. … The Lightning’s layoff is even longer than Boston’s, 10 days since Tampa Bay swept Washington.
OUTLOOK: Expect a low-scoring series that swings back and forth. Roloson outduels Thomas at the end. Lightning in 7.