As yet another sign of parity in the post-lockout NHL, there have now been six different teams in the Eastern Conference Finals over the last three seasons (and four in the West). In 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Carolina Hurricanes en route to the Stanley Cup; in 2010, the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens, the seventh and eighth seeds in the Conference, faced off in a relatively one-sided five-game series. This year, had you polled in September, the favorites in the East were mostly in the Atlantic Division: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and, yes, the New Jersey Devils (remember them?), with the one exception being the Washington Capitals, who were expected to be the strongest regular season team. A Tampa-Boston matchup was never in the cards.
Not that these teams were expected to be failures. Tampa's resurrection began on May 25th 2010, the day they hired Steve Yzerman to be their general manager. In four months, Yzerman managed to turn the Lightning franchise around. The signing of highly regarded coach Guy Boucher was a coup, and he has not disappointed. Trading for Simon Gagne and signing free agent Dan Ellis at reasonable prices were solid moves, and he gave a four-year extension to virtuoso winger Martin St. Louis, a move that was criticized at the time but helped impart a feeling of stability to the team. Tampa had the third-best shot differential in the NHL this season.
Boston was seen as a potential contender, but not a serious one. The team had just performed one of the biggest chokes in NHL postseason history, dropping a seven game series to the Flyers after going up 3-0, and they had too many highly paid players not living up to their contracts: names like Marc Savard, Michael Ryder, Milan Lucic and Tim Thomas. They did, however, have a solid defense corps and one of the best young goaltenders in the league in Tuukka Rask. Needless to say, the season has gone nothing like this: Thomas returned to form as the best netminder in the NHL, leaving Rask on the bench, Lucic bounced back, and the Bruins posted the second-best goal differential in the league. Best of all, the Bruins annihilated the Flyers in a rematch of last year's series, defeating them in four games and outscoring them 20-7 along the way.
So don't worry if my predictions for this series turn out to be wrongthese two teams have made a mockery of predictions all year.