By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
May 23, 1992.
That date may not be etched into the memories of sports fans, but for the Boston Bruins organization it signifies their last appearance in an Eastern Conference Finals game.
A lot of things have changed since the 1991-1992 NHL season.
For Boston, their 2010 first round draft pick Tyler Seguin was born in January of ’92. The Black and Gold found a new home in the
Shawmut Fleetcenter TDBanknorth TD Garden. The ol’ Boston Garden was torn down in 1996. There were some memorable moments along the way, but the Bruins never managed to advance passed the Conference Semi-Finals in their “new” arena.
For Tampa Bay, well, for starters they were awarded a hockey team. That’s right, the Tampa Bay Lightning were not even in the National Hockey League during Boston’s last Conference Finals appearance.
Since their inaugural 1992-1993 season, the Lightning have been to the Conference Finals once prior to this year’s trip, in the midst of their 2004 playoff run which would see the franchise capture its only Stanley Cup.
None of this will matter come Saturday night.
This year, both teams have taken similar routes to the Conference Finals. In Round One, Tampa made a dramatic comeback against the Pittsburgh Penguins, surviving an early series deficit only to prevail in seven games. Boston would also overcome adversity, coming back from two games down to beat the Montreal Canadiens in a dramatic Game 7 overtime win.
In the Semi-Finals, Tampa Bay would eliminate the heavily favored Washington Capitals in four games. The Bruins were able to erase the memory of last season’s postseason collapse, and get a little revenge along the way as they swept the Philadelphia Flyers out of the playoffs.
Now both teams rest and wait for the rest of the league to catch up.
For two teams that met four times in the regular season, the Lightning and Bruins will more or less be strangers when the puck drops in Game 1.
Boston’s 8-1 victory in December? Forget it. Throw it away. It means nothing now.
Not only was Tampa Bay still finding their identity (a process which really wasn’t completed until now), but they were without the man who has become perhaps their greatest asset. 41-year old Dwayne Roloson has surely surpassed any expectations that General Manager Steve Yzerman had in mind when he made the call to Long Island to see if they’d be interested in making a deal for the net-minder.
In the playoffs, Roloson has posted unbelievable numbers. 2.01 goals against average (1st in the league), and .941 save percentage (1st in the league). Coach Guy Boucher’s offensive dynamos, Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vinny Lecavalier have been a near unstoppable force. Also taking into consideration their better-than-average defense and extremely potent powerplay, and it becomes clear that Tampa Bay is a perfect example of a team heating up at just the right point.
Meanwhile, in Boston, 37-year old probable Vezina winner Tim Thomas has been the post-season superstar. A 2.03 goals against average and .937 save percentage put him just behind the Lightning’s Roloson for 2nd best in the postseason.
Boston’s offense doesn’t have any “superstars”. It’s offense-by-committee for the Bruins, and it’s certainly worked for them thus far.
That committee will most likely be starting Round 3 without their point-leader Patrice Bergeron, diagnosed with a “mild concussion” following a late hit by Claude Giroux in Game 7 against Philadelphia. Bergeron has been spotted in the Garden during Bruins’ practices, though he hasn’t participated, and all signs point to the injury being a relatively minor one.
Of course, when it’s your third concussion, there’s no such thing as a minor one. The Bruins organization have been doing their best to be patient with Bergeron, following league protocol and reporting “positive signs”. And while the loss of their best two-way player will hurt the Bruins, late season acquisitions Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley were brought in for this very reason: depth at the center position.
With Milan Lucic finally waking up from his post-season hibernation in the Semi-Finals’ Game 4, the B’s have to feel confident that their top line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton will continue to produce offense. Meanwhile rookie Tyler Seguin will be holding the roster spot usually reserved for Bergeron, and will try his best to contribute to his team’s playoff success.
On defense, Captain Zdeno Chara leads the league in plus/minus with a +11, especially impressive if you think back to Round One when the 6’9″ defenseman was sidelined with dehydration. The Bruins’ defense corps will finally be back at full strength, as Shane Hnidy will take his rightful place in the press box as Adam McQuaid returns to action, with a healthy Steven Kampfer waiting in the wings should the B’s need reinforcements.
Both teams will be well-rested and ready to go come Saturday. It’s been over two decades since Boston fans have had a chance to see their team contend for the Stanley Cup. In Tampa Bay, it’s been just seven years since they got a taste of glory. It’ll be a battle of will between two strong teams, both of whom are more than capable of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup this Spring.
Thankfully, it’s almost time to drop the puck.