Saturday, May 14, 2011

Stanley Cup Eastern Conference Finals preview

By Rick Morris

Two cities with little to no significant sports interaction prior to the Rays’ emergence in the AL East in 2008 now see their teams squaring off for a shot at the Stanley Cup Finals. Mirroring the 2008 ALCS, this Tampa squad comes in as the upstarts trying to move on arguably ahead of their time.

In terms of firepower, the Lighting are certainly more top-heavy, with explosive scorers Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos keying an attack that also features the excellent likes of Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne. Last year, Gagne helped Philly become only the third team in NHL history to overcome an 0-3 hole in the postseason as he contributed to Boston’s latest postseason disappointment.

However, Boston has most of the other edges on paper, starting with an offense that is deeper if not as potent at the top – with less-than-a-point-a-game-forwards David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron (out for at least the first two games in Boston), Nathan Horton and Mark Recchi taking turns lighting the lamp. They are without arguably their best offensive player, Marc Savard, who is recovering from post-concussion syndrome. Their other advantages come at the blueline – with Tomas Koberle, shutdown ace Dennis Seidenberg and FDH 2000s All-Decade Second-Team defenseman Zdeno Chara leading the way – and in net with 2009 Vezina Trophy winner and 2011 finalist Tim Thomas. He will be dueling with journeyman Dwayne Roloson, who offsets his 41 years with a record including some nice playoff runs in Minnesota and Edmonton’s improbable run to the Finals in ’06. Boston’s clamp-down defense even presents an Xs-and-Os edge over a Tampa team that has relied disproportionately on the power play to succeed – and an arrangement that allows them to put the gigantic Chara on the tiny St. Louis.

History hangs over this series, as improbably, Tampa is the last team standing with a recent Cup triumph to its credit. Lecavalier (FDH 2000s All-Decade Second-Team forward) and St. Louis (FDH 2000s All-Decade Honorable Mention) are the two stalwarts who played significant roles in that triumph. St. Louis has eclipsed Lecavalier in the team’s offense and is joined in the lead role by the amazing young Stamkos, who has the chance to cement himself as one of the league office’s golden boys of this generation alongside Crosby and Malkin. St. Louis and Lecavalier endured many fallow seasons in the seven years since their ultimate win, as years of horrible drafting caught up to the Lightning and, combined with shallow-pocketed ownership, gutted the franchise. They have re-emerged in only one year due to the savvy hiring of General Manager Steve Yzerman and the coach he selected, Guy Boucher.

Meanwhile, Boston’s history, both recently and otherwise, has been less kind. They last hoisted the Cup in 1972 as the incomparable Bobby Orr led them to the final big moment of his tenure. The dynastic Oilers blocked them in the Finals in 1988 and 1990. In recent years, they haven’t quite ranked with Ottawa, San Jose and Washington as the league’s biggest playoff disappointments, but they’ve been close. Last year’s choke to Philly came on the heels of the previous season’s heartbreak – dropping the conference semifinals to lightly-regarded Carolina as a #1 seed and having Scott Walker score the game-winning goal in OT on their home ice in Game 7 after Walker had broken the orbital bone of Aaron Ward earlier in the series in a classic “he shouldn’t even have been allowed to play” moment. So, while the Lightning are playing with house money, the Bruins are at a crossroads in this series: win and they are regarded as a team that had to take sequential steps and overcome hardships to take the next big step. Lose, and they risk being thrown on the “choke pile.”

Most pundits did not expect these two teams to meet in the playoffs before the season, largely because Tampa was regarded as a bubble playoff contender at best in the early stages of rebuilding (although I had them meeting in the conference semifinals in our preseason guide). And again, on paper, Boston has most of the edges in this series, including home ice. The pundits are enormously behind them. I’m not forgetting that Boston was my preseason pick to come out of the East. But there’s just something about the run that this Tampa Bay team is on right now that suggests something bigger and better than what they have already accomplished. Their vast superiority in the playoffs in special teams play looks to loom large. I am very wary of the pick I am making in the series, because I have a pronounced rooting interest since Yzerman is my all-time favorite athlete and I am defaulting to rooting for the Lightning with my Red Wings now on the sidelines. But I have picked against my rooting interests enough times to trust my gut on this one and the perception that Tampa’s incredible roll is not over yet. Tampa over Boston in 6 (picks are 7-1 in the first round, 2-2 in the second round) and Tampa over Vancouver in 6 in the Finals.

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