Paced by the offensive core of Martin St. Louis, Vinnie Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, and bolstered by the continued clutch play of Teddy Purcell and Steve Downie, the Lightning are one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals after what can only be described as a gut check 5-4 win in Game 6 at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday night. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals as the first Game 7 in the NHL Conference Finals since 2006 heads back to Boston on Friday night.
Both of these teams were forced to 7 Games in their first round series, so they are familiar with the pressure involved, but this is for a shot at the Cup so the stakes are much higher and the pressure has been ratcheted up to a level that a number of these players have never experienced. Who is going to break? We’ll find out Friday night for certain, but one thing for certain is Game 7 is going to come down to goaltending, special teams play and heart.
Boston’s Tim Thomas has proven to be a huge advantage to the Bruins in goal. He has the only shutout of this series and single handedly won Game 5 for Boston as the Lightning clearly had the greater number of legitimate scoring chances. Conversely Dwayne Roloson has struggled against the Bruins and displayed none of the game stealing ability that he displayed in the first two rounds of the playoffs which prompted Lightning coach Guy Boucher to play Mike Smith in Game 5. Granted Roloson is undefeated in elimination games, going 7-0 in his career, and he should start Game 7, but he has to be on a very short leash because there is no tomorrow if the game gets away from him. Mike Smith is without question the more athletic and better puck handling of the two net minders. His Puck handling alone seemed to stymie some of Boston’s pressure in Game 5, however Roloson is the horse you rode in on and he has earned the right to start this game.
The Bruins continue to struggle on the power play and their penalty killing has not fared any better. After scoring to tie Game 6 at 1-1, they were afforded three consecutive power plays and failed to convert on any of them. The Bruins moved Zdeno Chara, the hardest shooting player in the league, to a forward position and had him take up residence in front of Dwayne Roloson. At 6’9” tall and almost 270 lbs., I can understand getting a big, almost immovable body in front of the net; that being said, this move smacks of desperation and desperation is warranted at this stage of the game. The Lightning continue to motor along with their post-season success on special teams. Killing off three consecutive Bruin man advantages loomed large and a fourth penalty kill was sandwiched between two of Tampa Bay’s three power play goals on the evening. Marty St.Louis’ game winning goal was scored right after Dave Krejci’s power play goal for Boston rendering that tally meaningless. So the advantage on this front has clearly been in the Lightning’s favor.
Both teams have fought as hard as they can; they have left it all on the ice in each game, so it now comes down to a battle of wills. Who wants it more? Based on the recent Game 7 failures of the Boston Bruins, they have more than enough motivation having come up on the short end of the decision several times over the past six years. The Lightning have been revived by the changes made in the organization and having missed the playoffs the past three seasons realize just how big of an opportunity they have before them, an opportunity that most experts couldn’t even fathom at the beginning of the season.
It’s a 50/50 game at this point, a bounce here or there and someone is headed to the Stanley Cup Finals. I believed it before the series began and I believe it now, the winner of the special team’s battle in Game 7 will get the opportunity to play for Lord Stanley’s chalice. If things continue as they have, I expect to see the Bolts headed out to visit Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins in Vancouver.