The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks are halfway home and sit eight wins away from a Stanley Cup championship.
In the East, the Bruins and Lightning feature two aged-veterans in the crease, one a Vezina Trophy finalist, the other a proven clutch 'tender. Tampa Bay played a suffocating defense system that snuffed out the Capitals, but can it slow down the brute force of a Bruins team that will be shorthanded Patrice Bergeron?
In the West, the Sharks and Canucks each have their own unique baggage they are trying to unload. San Jose has been a playoff underperformer for years, but now that they have made it to the conference final twice in a row is that demon exorcised, or do the Sharks have to get to the Cup final first? To get there, they have to overcome a Canucks squad backed by an elite netminder with a flock of doubters and a pair of MVP-caliber twins who have something to prove themselves.
Which two teams will win four games first and have a chance to play for glory?
How Boston got here: After barely making it past Montreal in the conference quarterfinal, the Bruins rediscovered their offensive capabilities in the second round, albeit against a Philadelphia Flyers team that changed goalies as often as Lady Gaga changes her look. But make no mistake - Boston goalie Tim Thomas remains the backbone of the Gold and Black attack.
How Tampa Bay got here: Like the Bruins, the Lightning nearly were eliminated by their first round opponent (the Pittsburgh Penguins) and required the full seven games to move on. And like Boston, the Bolts ran roughshod over a second-round opponent (Washington) thanks to a balanced offensive attack and timely goaltending. Tampa fans also can thank the stifling defensive strategies of coach Guy Boucher for the team’s ability to keep the offensively potent Caps in check.
OFFENSE: The Lightning don’t have the best offensive production in the playoffs by accident (3.45 goals-for per game). They’re being led in scoring by veterans Martin St-Louis (six goals and 13 points) and Vincent Lecavalier (seven assists and 12 points), but they’ve also received contributions from lesser-lights such as Teddy Purcell (10 assists and 11 points) and Sean Bergenheim (a team-best seven goals). Boston boosted its offensive average to 3.36 goals per game in its series against Philly, but the Bruins had help from Flyers goalies. As well, with Bruins leading scorer Patrice Bergeron’s immediate future in limbo after he suffered a concussion in Game 4 of the second round, Boston will need other players to step up. EDGE: Lightning
DEFENSE: Ready for this? Both the Bruins and Bolts have played 11 playoff games and both are tied for the post-season’s stingiest defense (each allows an average of just 2.18 goals per game). On the surface, the Bruins have more depth and skill on their blueline, but the play of Tampa’s Eric Brewer makes the difference between the two defense corps far less dramatic. EDGE: Bruins
GOALTENDING: Netminding is another area in which there isn’t much that separates the two teams from each other. Boston’s Thomas (2.03 goals-against average, .937 save percentage) has been outstanding and is shaping up to be a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate. However, you could say the same about Dwayne Roloson, who wasn’t nominated for the Vezina Trophy as Thomas was, but whose numbers are slightly better - a 2.01 GAA and .941 save percentage. It’s essentially a toss-up, but we’re going with the guy who has been this good all year. EDGE: Bruins
SPECIAL TEAMS: This is a study in contrasts - and one that doesn’t flatter the Bruins. Boucher has the Bolts’ special teams clicking on just about all cylinders, with a 26.7 percent power play efficiency rate (third-best in the post-season) and a near-perfect 94.4 percent penalty kill (second only in the post-season to the eliminated Montreal Canadiens, who played four fewer games). Boston, on the other hand, has an average-at-best penalty kill (80.5 percent, ranked ninth in the playoffs) and a power play number (5.4) that sounds more like the league’s goals-per-game average instead of a team’s man-advantage percentage. Which team is better? It’s not even close. EDGE: Lightning
PREDICTION: With two notorious game-stealers in Roloson and Thomas, this series has the potential to be extremely low-scoring. The potential loss of Bergeron before the series begins is a significant blow to the Bruins chances; and Boston won’t have the luxury of early, soft goals to give it the strategic leg up it enjoyed against the Flyers. In the end, the championship pedigree of Tampa’s Lecavalier and St-Louis very well could be what sends the Bolts to the Cup final and the Bruins home. Lightning in 7.
How the Canucks got here: Because Ryan Kesler knew the directions and he was driving the bus. While the Canucks got some in-and-out performances from most of their stars up front, Kesler was as dominant in the Canucks’ second round triumph over Nashville as one player has been in a series for years. The high scoring Canucks scored just 14 goals in the series and Kesler either scored or assisted on 11 of them. A team that has often had its character questioned was also a demon on the road, winning all three games at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, which can be an intimidating place to play.
How the Sharks got here: With contributions from everyone in the lineup from the stars to the fourth-liners. The Sharks may very well rue the fact they allowed Detroit back into their series and looked a little shaky at times, but when they were at their best it was because everyone was pulling at the same end of the rope. The Sharks’ third line of Joe Pavelski between Kyle Wellwood and Torrey Mitchell provided outstanding two-way play and the kind of depth a team needs to win the Stanley Cup playoff marathon.
OFFENSE: Raise your hand if you predicted the regular season’s highest scoring team would be 14th among 16 playoff teams in goals per game after the second round. If your hand is up, go to the front of the class and collect your gold star. The Canucks offense has dried up at the worst possible time and unless and until someone other than Kesler starts scoring, they could be in real trouble. The Sharks, meanwhile, have had less trouble producing offense, which has come in handy when they’ve been behind in games and of course, in overtime. Edge: San Jose
DEFENSE: On the other side of the puck, the Canucks have been ironclad defensively, led by the shutdown tandem of Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis. But it’s one thing to render a popgun offense in Nashville impotent and it’s quite another to put the brakes on the talented and deep Sharks. The Sharks are giving up about 30 shots a game, which is obscured by the fact they’re averaging about 38 going the other way. It’s a positive ratio for them, but not a terribly defensively sound one. Edge: Vancouver
GOALTENDING: There were times during the series against Nashville that Roberto Luongo was spectacular and none where he was suspect. That is a great sign for both the Canucks as a group and Luongo individually. Again, though, there’s a big difference in staring down Mike Fisher, Martin Erat and Sergei Kostitsyn as opposed to Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Ryan Clowe and Logan Couture. On the other side, Antti Niemi remains as inconsistent and enigmatic as he was last spring when he won the Stanley Cup with Chicago. His numbers are brutal, but he seems to have the ability to make the big stop when he needs to make it. Edge: Vancouver
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Canucks have been significantly better on both sides of special teams through the playoffs. Even though the Sharks' power play was a lot better against Detroit - who suddenly forgot how to kill penalties in the playoffs - they have struggled with the man advantage overall. The Canucks have spent a lot of time on the penalty kill in these playoffs, perhaps emboldened by the fact they have such good penalty-killers. Edge: Vancouver
PREDICTION: Both teams in the Western Conference final had a golden opportunity to finish off their opponent quickly in the previous round and both let them up off the mat. It seems the Canucks and the Sharks are intent on doing things the hard way, which holds the promise for a lot of wild momentum swings in this series. If the Canucks can somehow get the Sedin twins going and Kesler continues to play like a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, they will be too much for the Sharks to contain. Canucks in six.
PRODUCER: Ted Cooper