Bruins-Bolts Conference Final Outlook

Both the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning have had plenty off after their sweeps of the Philadelphia Flyers (a week ago today) and Washington Capitals (last Wednesday), respectively. Now, the wait is nearly over as Game 1 of their Eastern Conference final series begins tomorrow night at the TD Garden.

The Bruins are making their first trip to the conference finals since 1992, while the Lightning are making their first appearance since their Stanley Cup victory in 2004.

This will also mark the very first playoff meeting between the two teams in their franchise histories.

The top early storyline is the Bruins’ ability to replace Patrice Bergeron, at least for the start of the Eastern Conference finals.

Bergeron, who is still recovering from a mild concussion sustained in Game 4 of the Philadelphia series, is Boston’s leading scorer this postseason (12 points in 11 games) and has clearly been the team’s best two-way forward. Moreover, Bergeron was the team’s leader in the faceoff circle – winning over 64 percent of his draws – and has seen a lot of time on the Bruins’ penalty kill; an aspect that could be the focal point of this series given the Lightning’s success on their power play (converting on 26.7 percent of their opportunities).

Chris Kelly, who has been quite a surprise offensively, will fill Bergeron’s role on the second line with Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi, while rookie Tyler Seguin finally sees his first postseason action and will skate alongside Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley on the third line. Like Bergeron, Kelly sees a lot of shorthanded time on ice, but Seguin, most likely, will fill in for Bergeron on the Bruins power play, which finally scored its first two goals of the postseason in their previous series.

Tampa, meanwhile, should have the benefit of getting forwards Simon Gagne (head) – a hero with the Flyers against the Bruins last postseason – and Ryan Malone (undisclosed) back in the lineup for Game 1, while defenseman Pavel Kubina (head) is still as questionable for Saturday.

While Bergeron’s absence has gained a lot of recognition with the media, the play of Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas and Bolts netminder Dwayne Roloson have also garnered a lot of attention.

Both Thomas, 37, and Roloson, 41, enter the postseason with an 8-3 record and have clearly been the two best goalies in the postseason. The two veterans have been the backbone of their respective teams, stealing a couple of games along the way – Thomas most notably against the Flyers in Game 2, Roloson in Game 7 against the Penguins in the first round. Statistically, however, Roloson has a slight edge over Thomas in both save percentage (.941 to Thomas’ .937) and goals against average (2.01 to Thomas’ 2.03), which are also tops amongst all goaltenders.

On paper – and without Bergeron – the slight edge goes to Tampa. With the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier, and secondary options such as Gagne, Malone and Sean Bergenheim, the Lightning have provided a deadly offense, averaging 3.46 goals per game. The Lightning’s defense, meanwhile, has been equally impressive giving up 2.18 goals per contest, and has been equally efficient shorthanded, killing over 94 percent of their penalties.

On the other hand, the Bruins, which has also given up the same amount of goals as the Bolts this postseason, have benefited from playing five-on-five with the combination of physical presences from Marchand, Recchi, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, and Bergeron’s and David Krejci’s playmaking abilities. With Tampa’s aggressive 1-3-1 defensive formation, Boston will need to counter that with that combination that has been seen throughout the postseason.

With Bergeron out for at least the first two games, one can argue that the speedy Bolts squad can take advantage and expose the Bruins’ weaknesses. However, the Black and Gold have fought adversity throughout the 2010-11 season, and there’s no reason that can’t continue.

It will be an entertaining series, but the Bruins will prevail and make their first appearance in the Cup Finals since 1990.

Prediction: Bruins in six

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