After last night’s 4-1 defeat in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round series at home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Boston Bruins find themselves in a dubious position.
With the series knotted at one game apiece coming home, the Bruins had the opportunity to take a firm hold of the series against a team they defeated three out of four times during the regular season. Instead, they began with a lack of focus leading to two Ondrej Palat goals in the first four minutes from which they never recovered.
Last night’s loss showed Boston’s real vulnerability in this series: Tampa Bay’s defensive corps is much better than theirs. Not only is Tampa’s six-man defensive unit better than Boston’s, it’s better than every other team’s six-man defensive unit of any team left, with the possible exception of Nashville.
Tampa Bay did what they needed to do last night to get an important road victory. They jumped on Boston early and took the crowd out of the game. It enabled them to then lay back and focus on preventing Boston’s speedy and skilled forwards to grind and make plays. The Bruins are at their best when they possess and cycle the puck with speed in the offensive zone. They established that very well in Game 1, less so in Game 2, but practically not at all in Game 3.
The Lightning were able to take Boston’s cycle game away because the early lead they established allowed them to focus on relentlessly hounding the Bruins as they began their breakout, leading to turnovers and missed opportunities.
And no, the Bruins are not losing because of the referees or Tuukka Rask. The officials have definitely missed some calls the last couple of games that have hurt Boston, but they are losing because they’ve been outplayed for the last two games.
And that isn’t on Rask. He isn’t playing well enough to push them over the top right now, but he’s not hurting their chances either. If Rask doesn’t come up with a few really tough saves in that first period and beyond, the score could’ve been a lot worse than 4-1 by the end.
For Boston to get by Tampa in the series, they will need to establish their identity early in games from here on out. The Lightning D is just too good for the Bruins to rely on making a third-period comeback every game.
Remember as well that Tampa Bay had a week off between the end of their series with New Jersey and the start of their series with Boston. Tampa Bay could rest its top guys while Boston was grinding out a seven-game victory over Toronto. The Lightning certainly looked to have fresher legs than Boston last night, and I think that may end up being a factor the rest of the series.
Before it started, my prediction was Boston would win in six games. That’s still possible. But, for the Bruins to make it reality, they will need to establish a lead and play from ahead rather than behind. As evidenced in Game 1, the series looks much different when the Bruins are playing from ahead.
Pittsburgh vs. Washington
The Capitals are ahead two games to one ahead of tonight’s Game 4 in Pittsburgh. And that lead is deserved. With the exception of a five-minute span in the third period of Game 1 in which the Penguins had a three-goal rally to win, the Caps could be ahead of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions three games to none.
I never expected to be writing that the Capitals have thoroughly outplayed the Penguins through the first three games, but they have. Braden Holtby has held his own against Matt Murray in net, and Alex Ovechkin is playing as though he wants to prove he’s as clutch a player as Sidney Crosby is.
Tom Wilson’s three-game suspension for a hit to the head on Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 will have an impact on the Caps. It may be a bit of a pivot point in the series. I would never count Pittsburgh out, but Washington looks like the better team and looks capable of finally clearing the Pittsburgh hurdle.
San Jose vs. Vegas
This may the most evenly played of all the second round series so far. There’s been two overtime toss-ups with each team winning once and now each team has whitewashed the other once after San Jose’s 4-0 domination of the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 last night.
Martin Jones stopped 34 shots in the shutout for the Sharks and Logan Couture continues to be one of the most clutch players in the league, especially in the playoffs.
Vegas now goes home for Game 5 with the series tied 2-2. They’ve established a very strong home ice advantage in their first NHL season. Now their Stanley Cup winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury must be a stabilizing force in net and the Golden Knights forward depth must get back to scoring three goals per game.
This series has seven games written all over it.
Winnipeg vs. Nashville
Despite falling behind 3-0 after 20 minutes in Game 3, the Winnipeg Jets used the passion of their Whiteout and the slick skill of the very underrated Dustin Byfuglien to stage a comeback that led to a 7-4 win and a 2-1 series lead.
This heavyweight battle of arguably the two best teams in the Western Conference has been fascinating to watch. Even though both teams have a tremendous defensive corps, it’s the offense that is shinning through on both sides. For the Predators, it’s been Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson leading the way. For the Jets, it’s Byfuglien, Mark Schiefele, Paul Stastny, and Blake Wheeler making a difference.
This series is likely to come down to which goalie can make the biggest saves in the biggest moments. Will it be the veteran Preds goalie Pekka Rinne or the Jets Connor Hellebuyck, who established an NHL record for wins in a season by an American-born goalie this season when he won 44 games? Both are Vezina Trophy finalists for best goalie in the NHL this year. Each team’s fate is in large part in both of their hands.