Eastern Conference Finals Preview - (5) Tampa Bay Lightning vs. (3) Boston Bruins
The Tampa Bay Lightning are playing with house money under a first-year coach and a general manager who has quickly remade an organization. Yet, they’re hardly the focus as the puck drops in the 2011 NHL Eastern Conference Finals. The pressure and publicity in this clash will entirely revolve around the Boston Bruins, who have traveled many miles but still have a long way to go before they can sleep the sleep of satisfaction.
The Bruins have done quite well to get to this point. In the middle of April, Boston was staring into the abyss against its hated nemesis from Montreal. The Canadiens forged a 2-0 series lead against the Bs and were headed home for two tilts in the province of Quebec. Boston had lost 24 of its 32 playoff series to Les Habitants, putting the Beantowners in a very familiar position… of inadequacy and despair. A first-round loss certainly would have meant the end of the tenure of head coach Claude Julien. Boston would have had to start from scratch; the effects of an early exit against Montreal would have been devastating.
With the fate of the organization at stake, however, the Bruins rallied in many different senses of the term. Roused, resourceful and resilient, Boston began to show more passion and precision, and after delivering a solid Game 3 performance to get back in the series, the Bs – down by two goals in Game 4 – picked themselves off the canvas and stunned the Habs with a late surge capped by an overtime winner in that telltale contest. When Boston left French Canada in a newly even series, the Bruins turned the corner and have not looked back since. The Bs scored overtime wins in Games 5 and 7 to knock out the hated Habs, and thrust themselves into another dance with a demon, this one of a decidedly different sort.
The Philadelphia Flyers have not had all that much success in their own history, so when Boston confronted the Flyers in round two of this year’s playoffs, there wasn’t a decades-long grudge that needed to be settled. Instead, the Bruins needed to gain revenge for a one-year-old wound that cut deep into the franchise and made this 2011 playoff journey so fully freighted with importance for New England’s NHL hockey team. Last year, Philadelphia lost the first three games of the Eastern Conference semifinals, only to win the next four games. The Broad Street Bullies erased a three-goal deficit (3-0, to be exact) just for good measure in Game 7 – in Boston, no less – to stun the Bruins and become just the third team in hockey history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. That loss hung over the Bruins like a dark cartoon raincloud, and so the 2011 playoff reunion between the two teams also became a must-win for the Bs. Beating Montreal saved the coaching staff’s job, but losing to the Flyers would have taken away all the sweetness of that triumph.
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This time, the Bruins got it right. Boston still won the first three tilts against Philly but came good in Game 4, finishing the Flyers with a flourish. Now, Boston has swatted away two dark memories and reached the East finals for the first time since 1992. With a series win against Tampa Bay, the Bs can make the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990 and make a run at their first Cup since 1972. The Lightning, despite having just a fraction of the Bruins’ history, have already lifted Lord Stanley’s revered trophy. The 2004 pre-lockout title gave the newbie franchise instant credibility. If Tampa Bay and first-year coach Guy Boucher can’t bump off the Bruins and lead general manager Steve Yzerman to the Cup finals as a non-Detroit Red Wing, nobody in the state of Florida will feel crushed or disillusioned.
If the Bruins can’t reach the Cup finals, New England will experience the pain of falling short one more time. Boston has won some personal series and settled some scores, but now comes a championship series and the chance to go the distance in the hockey postseason. In a matchup of the sport’s two oldest active starting goaltenders – 41-year-old Tampa backstop Dwayne Roloson and 37-year-old Boston netminder Tim Thomas – the Bruins need to build on their two cathartic conquests if they expect to take down a Tampa team that shocked the highly-credentialed Pittsburgh Penguins and then blew away the top-seeded Washington Capitals in the other half of the East bracket. If Boston can’t strike down the Lightning, the 2011 season won’t be a failure, but it certainly won’t rate as a richly rewarding success story, either.
No pressure, Boston. No pressure at all.
By: Matt Zemek
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer
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