Series breakdown: Bruins (3) vs. Lightning (5)
Regular season series: Bruins win 3-1
ELIOT: Western final breakdown
Snapshot: In 1997, Tim Thomas and Martin St. Louis finished their sterling four-year careers at the University of Vermont together, only to venture off into likely hockey obscurity. St. Louis wasn't even drafted by an NHL team. Thomas, barely: ninth round by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994. By the fall of '97, St. Louis was skating for the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the International League while Thomas would tend goal for two minor-pro teams in the U.S. (Birmingham of the ECHL and Houston of the IHL) and one in Europe (HIFK Helsinki) that season.
Fourteen years later, here they are, having led their teams into the Eastern Conference Finals. This is one of the many intriguing, and probably best, storylines of what should be a terrific match-up.
Each team's journey in getting this far mirrors the career paths of Thomas and St. Louis. Boston overcame an 0-2 hole against Montreal in the first round and won the series in seven. Tampa Bay came all the way back from a 3-1 first-round deficit against Pittsburgh. Both teams are coming off sweeps in the second round, and both have red-hot goalies.
As good as Thomas has been this postseason at age 37, the guy who might call him "kid" -- 41-year-old Dwayne Roloson -- has been even better. Roloson enters the series with a league-best 2.01 goals-against average and .941 saves percentage. Thomas is at 2.03 and .937 respectively. Both teams like to clog things up defensively in the middle, but both also feature dynamic offensive players. While Tampa Bay has bigger names than Boston's up front, with St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, the Bruins have a deep group of forwards that can zip the puck around the ice.
Tampa Bay's first-year coach Guy Boucher has gotten plenty of well-deserved good press for getting his team to play with better defensive discipline than recent editions of the Lightning, but the Bolts are still allowing an average of 35.5 shots per game in the playoffs this year. If that average continues, Roloson figures to be in for a tougher time than Thomas because the Bruins go to the net harder than either the short-handed Penguins or the blue-paint-allergic Capitals did in the previous rounds.
Both teams also enter the series with worries about concussions to one of their top forwards. Patrice Bergeron, arguably Boston's most skilled when healthy, was knocked out of Game 4 of their second-round series against the Flyers with what was called a minor concussion, and he hasn't practiced since. Tampa Bay's Simon Gagne also has missed time lately due to a concussion, but he may be ready to go for Game 1.
One final statistic to consider: Tampa Bay almost never wins in Boston: 4-22-9 over the years at either the old Boston Garden or the new building.
Spotlight's on: Vincent Lecavalier. He enters the series on a four-game points streak, and has 49 (including 19 goals) in 45 career games against the Bruins. While he isn't the huge scorer he was a few years ago -- partly due to his sacrifice to Boucher's defensive system -- he's still capable of dominating key stretches of a game and likes the puck in pressure moments: three of his five goals this postseason have been game-winners. It's hard to believe that he's 32 already, as it seems like just last week that he was the skinny kid standing at the podium as the first pick of the NHL draft. But, oh yeah, that was in 1998.
X-Factor for Bruins: Nathan Horton. If Bergeron can't play because of his concussion, coach Claude Julien will look to guys such as Horton. Lately, the former Florida Panther has been earning his keep, including an OT winner in Game 7 against Montreal. He's got points in five straight games, and has 22 goals and 42 points in 42 career games against the Lightning.
X-Factor for Lightning: Sean Bergenheim. Anybody have this guy in their pre-playoff pools as the NHL's postseason goal-scoring leader after the first two rounds? Didn't think so. But Bergenheim already has seven -- half the number he scored in 80 regular-season games for Tampa Bay. If guys like him, Steve Downie and Dominic Moore can keep chipping in offensively, the Lightning will be tough to beat.
The Pick: Bruins in seven.
NHL analyst Brian Leetch previews the Boston vs. Tampa Bay Eastern Conference Finals series and believes that Bruins goalie Tim Thomas will be the key to either team advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. Run Time: 2:43