The Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins are the two best teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference. They will play each other in Round 2. The NHL’s wonky postseason format strikes again.
Down the stretch of the regular season, it looked like the Bruins were going to catch the Lightning and wrestle the Atlantic Division title — and home-ice advantage for this series — away from Tampa, who lead the division for almost the entire season. A loss to the Florida Panthers at home crushed that scenario and the Bolts took the division, the right to play at home and the easier matchup in Round 1. While the Bruins had to navigate a tough first-round tilt with the Maple Leafs, the Lightning skated past the Devils without much of a nudge.
Survive and Advance
It wasn’t ideal for the Bruins to let their 3-1 series lead slip against Toronto, but they survived and advanced and are now in a spot where they’re probably being underrated because it looked like the B’s struggled with the Leafs in Round 1.
On the surface, it looked like the Bruins had a tough time with the Buds — who are a good team, by the way. But if you take a deeper look, the Bruins were the much better team throughout the series and just didn’t get the goaltending nor the bounces to make quicker work of Toronto.
A deeper look at Boston’s seven-game thrill ride shows that they outplayed Toronto. The Bruins controlled possession with a 52.72 adjusted CF% (a metric that uses shot attempts for and against as a barometer for possession, also known as Corsi For) and they controlled the scoring chances.
A 4-1 series victory probably would have flattered Boston a little bit, but a 4-3 win definitely doesn’t tell the whole story, either.
At this point in his career, Tuukka Rask is what he is, which a solid but unspectacular NHL goaltender. For a team like Boston that is so good at controlling the shot share and limiting scoring chances, he doesn’t need to stand on his head.
His opponent for this series will be the young starlet, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who at 23 years old just got nominated for his first Vezina Trophy. The Tyumen, Russia native had a great first full season with the Bolts, but he’s probably a little overrated by the hockey media and fans alike. The edge in net is with Tampa Bay, but it’s not all that wide.
Tampa Bay Is Very Good
The Lightning are a juggernaut, there’s no getting around it. Nobody would call you crazy if you suggested they are the best team in the NHL. Up front, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are a threat every time they step on the ice and their second-line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson are a chore to play against. Point is especially fantastic in every facet of the game and will likely be tasked with going head-to-head with Patrice Bergeron’s line when Tampa gets the last change.
Behind them will be Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli. I guess you could call this trio a third line, but on most teams these guys would be heavily leaned on. But with all the talent ahead of them on the roster, they are just exceptional depth players. A fourth line consisting of Ryan Callahan, Chris Kunitz and Cedric Paquette is perfectly adequate, as well.
A team with that much depth up front could be excused for not having as strong a defense, but the Lightning’s blueline is absolutely a strength. Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh can each play 30 minutes a game and can both handle the tough assignments. Mikhail Sergachev has been a revelation this year and Anton Stralman is a strong No. 4 defenseman. Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn may leave something to be desired, but they play with such good rearguards that their weaknesses aren’t going to be exploited.
The Bruins Might Be Better
The Bruins are the only team in the Eastern Conference who can match the Lightning’s depth at both ends of the ice. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak are the best line in hockey and basically cancel out any edge Stamkos and Kucherov would provide Tampa against any other team. Behind them, Rick Nash, Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci are perhaps a notch below Point’s line but there’s no huge gap there. The same can be said of Boston’s third line, which consists of Danton Heinen, David Backes and Riley Nash.
On defense, the Bruins don’t have a Victor Hedman, but Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk can go toe-to-toe with the Bolts’ top-four. There’s a slight edge to Tampa in terms of personnel but the Bruins are so damn good at holding the puck and preventing scoring chances as a team that I think the ice will be tilted in their favor.
At the time of writing, the Bruins are listed as a +125 underdog (5dimes), suggesting they have ~44.4% chance of winning this series. Tampa, meanwhile, is listed at -145 which means the bookmakers are giving them ~59.2% chance of taking this home.
If these two teams played 100 times on neutral ice it could end up 50-50, that’s how tight these two squads are. The Lightning having home-ice advantage bumps Tampa up a bit here, BUT not by 5%. I think you’re getting some added value because the Bruins had some trouble burying the Leafs. It’s essentially a coin flip and that means there’s value with Boston at +125.