This series is there for the taking.
Entering Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight in Tampa, it's clear it is quite within the realm of realistic expectation for the Bruins to skate for Lord Stanley's hallowed hardware for the first time in 21 years. Even with Guy Boucher going Gary Kasparov in the playoffs and the Lightning's gobs of goal scorers, Tampa Bay is a beatable bunch for the Bruins, Patrice Bergeron or no Patrice Bergeron in the lineup.
But just as important as Bergeron being able to clear his head following a mild concussion is the Bruins being able to clear visions of Game 2 out of theirs, because 6-5 is not the blueprint for beating the Lightning. That victory was more like catching lighting in a bottle with a remarkable five-goal second period. The NHL abolishes the shootout in the playoffs, and the Bruins should follow suit, lest they be banished from the postseason.
The Bruins' defense-optional win in Game 2 was memorable (thanks, Tyler Seguin) and enjoyable, but it should have come with a warning label -- potentially fatal if not enjoyed in moderation. We can debate until we're blue in the face whether Bruins coach Claude Julien stunted Seguin this season, but what is not debatable is that the Bruins backbone all season has been goaltending and parsimonious play in their own zone.
While the mark of a championship team is the ability to win in a variety of ways, the Bruins aren't going to win this series, currently deadlocked 1-1, by channeling the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. Open ice, ample maneuvering room and an open-ended style of play favors Tampa Bay and the skating and skill of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier. We're talking about in order the NHL's second-leading goal scorer this season, a Hart Trophy winner, and a former No. 1 pick and one-time 50-goal scorer.
The Bruins simply can't match that high-end horsepower, even if you think Seguin is now the second-coming of Wayne Gretzky, David Krejci really is Pavel Datsyuk Lite and Bruins pick Milan Lucic up from the TD Garden lost-and-found. The Lightning are the highest-scoring team in the playoffs (3.69 goals per game), with the Bruins, the fifth-leading scoring team during the regular season, second at 3.46. That will be the order of finish in this series if Game 2 is a preview of coming attractions.
The good news for the Black and Gold is that they're knotted up with the Lightning without Bergeron, despite the fact they haven't played their best hockey yet and have gotten off on starts that would make the Red Sox blush in each of the first two games. The bad news is that they haven't played their best hockey yet, and they've gotten off to horrible starts in each of the first two games. Hopefully, a change of venue to the St. Pete Times Forum can change that. The Bruins have played their best in the playoffs on the road, going 4-1.
The Bruins are away from home, but they're going to have to return to their roots stylistically and tighten up the play in their own end. It's time to cut out the gift-wrapped goals and too-late reaction times, and cut down on the odd-man rushes and frantic scrambles in front of their own net.
"I think we’ve just got to get back to playing our game," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters this morning. "The first game I don’t think was as bad. We talked about those three quick goals were goals I felt we just got a little sloppy, gave them away. It wasn’t necessarily always structure. Second game, I mean we were pretty good in the first period and then when we took that lead, it kind of opened up the play. ...For two teams that are relying a lot on solid defense, it hasn’t been the case so far in this series."
It was for Tampa in Game 1, when they went up 3-0 and held on for a 5-1 win. The Bruins, not so much with 6-3 lead after two periods of Game 2.
The Bruins allowed seven goals total in the Flyers series. They've already surrendered 10 to Tampa Bay in two games. The only two Bruins' defensemen on the plus-side of the plus-minus ledger are Adam McQuaid and Tomas "Give it away" Kaberle, whose goal-producing gaffe in Game 1 is emblematic of the Spoked-B breakdowns defensively in this series.
Not all of Tampa tallies are the result of negligence around the net. The lasers by Stamkos and Lecavalier in Game 2 were just great plays. Brett Clark's goal in Game 1 was on goalie Tim Thomas, who has looked spectacular at times but uncomfortable at others in the first two games.
Julien said you can't just single Thomas out for not being in the Vezina zone he was in against the Flyers. The whole team has been inconsistent defensively.
"Everybody has to take responsibility as a team," said Julien. "I think we have given up a lot of scoring chances, way more than we’re used to giving up. And on our account anyway, we had them for nine scoring chances in the third period [of Game 2] which is sometimes what he give up in a whole game. So, certainly, we have to take responsibility as a team, and still the goaltender is part of the team. So everybody takes that responsibility and together we can make it better."
The more you watch this series the more you realize that the Bruins have a golden opportunity in front of them, if they can keep the Lightning from reaching the back of the net five times per game.
If the Bruins don't get more defensive, then what was wishful thinking before the playoff started -- playing for a Stanley Cup -- will become wistful thinking as a golden opportunity to play for the silver chalice passes them by.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.