BOSTON -- For six games, the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have waged a war of unpredictability. Never mind game to game, this series has featured frantic changes in momentum from period to period and shift to shift.
So there's no reason to think we'll see anything different Friday night in Game 7. But here's a look at factors that might allow each of these teams to prevail and earn a trip to Vancouver for the Stanley Cup finals.
1. The power-play elephant in the room: The Bruins' power-play elephant isn't in the corner anymore; it's taken over the entire living room. Yes, the Bruins did score their first road power-play goal in Game 6 in Tampa, but it was overshadowed by three Lightning power-play goals and came far too late in the proceedings for the Bruins.
Overall, the Bruins are 5-for-61 with the man advantage. Even with coach Claude Julien moving big man Zdeno Chara to the front of the Tampa net, Bruins shooters have seemed reluctant to fire the puck in the past few games. (It must be a contagion whose host was Tomas Kaberle).
"Well, you can't let it mentally get to you," Julien said after Friday's morning skate. "I think you've got to have some resilience; you have to have some determination. That's what we're pushing our guys to be. ... I don't think it's one of those situations where you got panicked and you've got to stay positive and you've got to find solutions. That's what we're doing."
If the Bruins can score on the power play, it may be enough to punch their ticket to the Cup finals. If not, forget it.
2. Weary penalty kill? The flip side of the special-teams coin is that the Bruins' penalty kill appeared to finally wear down in Game 6 after being so good for so much of this series and throughout the playoffs. It's hard to fault a group that had allowed just two power-play goals through the first five games. But in allowing the Lightning to go 3-for-4 in Game 6, the Bruins have to hope that was merely a blip on the radar.
If the Bruins cannot control Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and the suddenly hot Teddy Purcell on the man advantage, there will be trouble in Beantown. The Bruins allowed the Lightning three second-period power plays in Game 6, and the Lightning scored on all of them. (The third power-play goal came early in the third period as a carryover). The easiest way for the Bruins to avoid that problem is to stay out of the box.
3. Vezina Tim: There has been a lot of grumbling about Tim Thomas' play in Game 6, as he allowed five goals on 26 shots. Come on -- three of those were on the power play, and a fourth was on a nice 2-on-1 with Steve Downie beautifully setting up St. Louis. Still, Thomas will have to be the Thomas who was so crucial in the Bruins' Game 5 victory, a game in which the Lightning outshot and outchanced the Bruins by a wide margin. If he is that goalie, the Bruins will be headed to Vancouver. No one questions Thomas' character, but if he gives up an early goal (as he has in this series), would he start to think back to last season against Philadelphia and the lost opportunity there?
4. Big line, little line: The David Krejci-Nathan Horton-Milan Lucic line has at times been dominant in this series. Krejci, of course, had a hat trick in a losing effort in Game 6, and the trio has combined for 16 points against Tampa Bay. But Lucic has not been the force he was during the regular season, and one wonders whether an apparent foot injury is keeping him from being at his rambunctious best. If the line can hem the Lightning in their own zone and create chances, draw penalties (see above) and crowd the front of the Lightning net, the Bruins will be in good shape.
But the play of Patrice Bergeron's line may be more significant for the Bruins. Bergeron remains the team's most consistent player this spring and has two goals and an assist in the series after missing the first two games. But Mark Recchi is without a point, and Brad Marchand has just one goal versus the Bolts. Not enough, especially against a Lightning team that has been getting great offensive support from its top three lines.
5. The big man: Both teams will be looking for heroes in Game 7, and what better time for the Bruins' captain, Chara, to exert himself? We hark back to Game 5, a game in which the Bruins seemed to wobble. It was Chara who was a seminal figure, jumping into the action, forcing the Lightning into mistakes with physical play and controlling the flow in the Boston zone. Another game like that and the Bruins' chances of advancing go up exponentially, especially now that Julien has installed Chara (at least part of the time) in front of the Lightning net on the power play.
Tampa Bay Lightning
1. Dr. Evil? Some media types in the Boston area are referring lightheartedly to Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher as "Evil Genius" or Dr. Evil. At least we think it's lighthearted. Boucher said he didn't want to know anything about that kind of stuff, but it's been interesting to listen to his players throughout the playoffs. They speak the same language Boucher speaks. The same catchphrases, the same sentiments are echoed by coach and players at almost every turn. Not sure it's evil, but maybe a bit creepy?
But if anything speaks to a team buying into the philosophy and game plan espoused by Boucher, it's that. If the Lightning stay on task in Game 7, it's hard to believe they will not be headed to Vancouver. Boucher said he believes that his team is ready to channel the emotion of Game 7 in the right direction.
"It's our job to make sure that we stay focused on what we've got to do, not the hype of everything else that this game means," Boucher said Friday. "And we feel that we can be better than the last game, definitely. We've done some good things. We want to keep those, but I think we need to focus on what we need to improve for tonight."
2. Roli's gold: Does it matter that netminder Dwayne Roloson hasn't looked all that sharp at times in the Eastern Conference finals? Only if he carries that uneven play into Game 7. Yes, he allowed four goals on 20 shots in Game 6, but he is an incredible 7-0 in elimination games in the NHL playoffs. Boucher had no hesitation in going back to Roloson after giving him a break in Game 5. If you assume Thomas is going to be better in Game 7, it behooves Roloson to match that level of play. History suggests he will.
3. The kid: We think perhaps Stamkos has been pressing a bit in the Eastern Conference finals. Let's not forget that this is the first playoff experience for the former NHL scoring champ. (He shared the honor with Sidney Crosby last season.) But in the second period of Game 6, Stamkos appeared to get into a groove and finished with a goal and two assists. Can he carry that into a game that will require each team's best players to be at their best? Maybe this is the stage on which Stamkos fully announces his arrival as an NHL playoff star.
4. The boys who have been here: If there is one thing the Lightning don't lack in their dressing room, it is experience on the game's grandest stages. Captain Vincent Lecavalier and St. Louis were major contributors during the Lightning's Stanley Cup run in 2004. They beat Philadelphia in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals that year, and current teammate Simon Gagne was among the players on that Philly team. St. Louis, of course, was a force in Game 6 with two goals, including the winner, and an assist. Throw in former Olympians Eric Brewer and Mattias Ohlund, and this team shouldn't get rattled even if it falls behind.
5. Early, yes, what about often? The opening goal of the game has come before the two-minute mark four times in this series. Three of them were from the Lightning, with Adam Hall, Gagne and Purcell getting the job done before fans settled into their seats. The weird part? In two of those games, the Bruins came back to win. If you're the Lightning, this is all about building on successes, something that was absent in Game 5. (Gagne scored 1:09 in, but the Bolts failed to build that two-goal lead that ultimately cost them in a 2-1 loss.) Call it killer instinct, call it not easing up -- the Lightning have to keep pushing forward if they once again earn an early lead.