For the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans, it comes down to this - Game 7.
Winner moves onto face the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Finals, loser goes home. For the Bruins, it is an opportunity to go to their first Stanley Cup since 1990. For the Lightning, it's a chance to stun the doubters one last time.
The two teams have engaged in a wildly entertaining back-and-forth series. The Lighting took games 1, 4 and 6. The Bruins took games 2, 3 and 5. The Bruins have scored 22 goals. The Lightning have scored 21. The Bruins have stayed alive with opportunistic scoring and solid goaltending despite their defensive shortcomings. The Lighting have stayed alive with explosive offensive bursts, despite uncertainties between the pipes.
Now comes Game 7. To quote Bruins winger Milan Lucic, It's the biggest game of our careers.
Here are some of the keys to the game:
For The Bruins:
1) Better defense on the power play: The Bruins were leading 2-1 in Game 6 when the Lightning used the power play to seize game. The Lightning went 3-for-4 on the powerplay during the game and at times made the Bruins look helpless. The Bruins can't be overpowered like that when they are a man down.
2) Speaking of powerplay: On the flip side, the Bruins need to do a better job taking advantage of having a man advantage. In Game 6, they went a paltry 1-for-5. They have struggled the entire playoffs and could use a breakout game.
3) No errors from Thomas: It's hard to criticize Bruins goalie Tim Thomas considering some of his miraculous efforts during the playoffs. But if the Bruins ever needed a Herculean effort from Thomas, tonight is the night. During Game 6, Thomas let in at least one easy one (at least for him). During the series, he has been suspectible to Tampa's furious attack. Tonight, that can't happen.
For The Lightning
1) What got them this far: The Lighting are one of the best teams in the NHL at using their offensive quickness to overwhelm the opposing defense. This has been their strength throughout the entire series against Boston. It can't disappear tonight if they want to advance.
2) Frustration: The Lightning's head coach Guy Boucher has done a good job frustrating the Bruins and their fans with experimental lineups and an aggressive game plan. In Game 6, this strategy led to multiple penalties on the Bruins, which led to multiple goals for the Lightning. If it happens again, the Lightning will win.
3) Not worrying about the road: The Lightning will be playing in front a hostile, anxious Boston crowd. With a number of players including captain Martin St. Louis having played in big games before, including the 2004 Stanley Cup championship (which the Lightning won), the Lightning need to use their experience and make home ice a non-factor.
Prediction: I always go with the better goalie in this circumstance. I like Thomas over Dwayne Roloston (even though the latter does have an impressive 7-0 in elimination games) and I like the Bruins over the Lightning. Bruins win 3-2