After putting the seventh-best team in the National Hockey League in the Toronto Maple Leafs to bed Wednesday by way of a 7-4 comeback win, the Boston Bruins are now in Tampa Bay, where they’ll skate against the Lightning, the third-best team in the league this past regular season.
Life isn’t exactly fair for the team that finished with the fourth-most points in the NHL.
“Well, it’s going to be a battle,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand said of the club’s second-round opponent. “They were a top team all year. They compete very hard, have a ton of skill, and they have a lot of depth.”
But what is it that makes the Lightning different from the Maple Leafs? Besides the fact that it looks like Tampa Bay completely stole Toronto’s uniforms, replaced the Leaf with the Gatorade logo, and hoped nobody would notice?
And just what are the Bruins in for in their second-round series?
The biggest and perhaps most obvious point is that you’re talking about a Tampa squad with a much, much better defense than the Maple Leafs. To be honest, trying to compare these teams defensively and suggest that they’re in the same realm is more embarrassing than Jake Gardiner’s Game 7 performance.
That difference begins and ends with the impact 6-foot-6 defenseman Victor Hedman can have on any given contest.
A Norris Trophy finalist after a 17-goal, 63-point regular season, Hedman comes into action on the heels of a first-round series that saw him held without a point, yes, but tallied seven blocked shots, four hits, and skated at least 23 minutes of time on ice in all five of their games. He’s a legit top-pairing d-man that can make an impact at both ends of the rink, fits Jon Cooper’s system to a T, and has tallied three points in four games against the Bruins this season. In fact, Hedman has factored in on 55.5 percent of Tampa Bay’s scoring against the Bruins since the start of last season.
Quite imply, the Leafs didn’t have a defenseman that could take over a game — or even come close — in their seven-game series with Boston. In Hedman, the Bolts have exactly that. And there’s support behind him, too.
Deadline pickup Ryan McDonagh is on the club’s second defensive-pairing, and impactful rookie Mikhail Sergachev is on the third. Veteran Dan Girardi, channeling the player he was five years ago, can move around the defensive rotation. Same for Anton Stralman, too.
There’s some tremendous depth here, meaning the B’s are looking out for more than one combo.
But if the Bruins can battle through this defense and continue to shoot the puck like they did in the first round — the Bruins have averaged 35.0 shots per game, the third-most in the postseason, and without a single overtime game to their name — they’ll like their results against Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Fighting through fatigue issues late in the regular season, Vasilevskiy does come into this series with a 4-1-0 record and .941 save percentage, yeah, but his numbers against the Black and Gold hardly inspire confidence.
He has one win and a .922 save percentage in six career head-to-heads with the Bruins, and surrendered nine goals on 125 shots against the Bruins this past season. And if you watch how the Bruins played Vasilevskiy this season, with the exception of a late-season shutout against a tired Black and Gold squad sucking wind in the final week of action, it appeared that the Bruins found their shooting angles against the 23-year-old goaltender.
Another thing working to the Bruins’ favor in this series?
Their first-round experience with a team with a ton of speed — especially on the wings — and four balanced lines.
The Bolts keep their best one-two punch together with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov on their first line, but you’re talking about a team with Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Tyler Johnson on line two, and a deep bottom-six with a great shutdown third line and Cup-experienced vets like Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz on the fourth line.
This balance doesn’t come with any surprises like Tomas Plekanec in round one, nor is it anything the Bruins haven’t seen (J.T. Miller was the lone addition to this forward group at the deadline, and the Bruins have seen him twice since), meaning that a potential matchup-centered game would not come back to doom the Bruins.
But no matter how you slice it, the Bruins know they’re in for the long run against this Tampa group.
“They’re a formidable group,” Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said of his team’s matchup. “You knew last year they were injured and they were going to come back hungry. I think our group has respected the guys they are playing against and go out and put forth their best effort. There have been areas of the game that we’re going to try and attack and break down, and I’m sure they’re going to try and do the same thing. They had a little more time to rest, but hopefully we can go down and start the series off on the right foot.”
Game 1 is at 3 p.m. Saturday.