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Many reasons why Lightning aren’t lightly regarded

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / May 9, 2011

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WILMINGTON — If the Lightning can find an encouraging statistic within their 1-3 regular-season record against the Bruins, it is zero: the number of games in which Dwayne Roloson patrolled the crease.

First-year general manager Steve Yzerman made his most important hire June 10 when he brought on Guy Boucher as his coach. Yzerman strengthened his blue line when he acquired Eric Brewer from St. Louis Feb. 18 for Brock Beukeboom and a third-round pick.

But Yzerman’s sharpest trade came New Year’s Day. With Mike Smith, Dan Ellis, and Cedrick Desjardins misfiring between the pipes, Yzerman wheeled Ty Wishart to the Islanders for former UMass-Lowell netminder Roloson. In hindsight, it was the move that made Yzerman most worthy to become one of three finalists for the GM of the Year Award. In 11 playoff games, Roloson is 8-3 with a 2.01 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Statistically, Roloson and fellow graybeard Tim Thomas (8-3, 2.03 GAA, .937 save percentage) have been a dead wash.

The Lightning feature three of the most skilled forwards in the NHL: Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, and Vincent Lecavalier. But Roloson’s brilliance underscores that in the playoffs, Tampa Bay’s focus has been on defense.

The core of Boucher’s system is the neutral-zone trap. At times, the Lightning feature a 1-3-1 formation. On other occasions, they shift into a 1-2-2 setup. But the theme remains the same: gum up center ice and prevent clean entries into the offensive zone. When opponents set up offensively, the Lightning, like the Canadiens, concentrate on taking away net-front real estate.

“Defensively, they’re a team that will collapse and overload,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien.

Like Julien, Boucher doesn’t mind his team allowing high numbers of shots. During the playoffs, opponents have averaged 35.5 shots per game on Roloson, the third-highest amount any goalie has seen in this year’s postseason. As his numbers indicate, Roloson has been excellent. But he’s also been getting plenty of help from his defensemen.

Brewer leads all Lightning with 26 minutes 9 seconds of ice time per game. Boucher also leans on Victor Hedman (21:58) and Mattias Ohlund (20:43).

“They sit way back, they pounce, and it’s hard to get through it,’’ Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said of the Lightning’s defense.

But what makes the Lightning deadly is how they transition from defense to offense. Once they gain puck possession via the trap, they counter with Ferrari-like speed. They have but one destination: the net.

“When you see them attack, they’re ferocious,’’ Chiarelli said. “Everything’s thrown at the net. There may be some occasions when there’s some peripheral stuff. But it’s always a direct line. You’ve got a tremendous skill package and speed package up front, and a good, disciplined system on the back end.’’

It isn’t just speed and skill up front. Collectively, the Lightning’s hunger level is off the charts. St. Louis is considered one of the game’s fiercest competitors. St. Louis and Lecavalier won rings in 2004 when they beat Calgary. Both forwards — the never-stop, bulldog-shaped St. Louis and the rangy, wiry Lecavalier — will be handfuls for Zdeno Chara and the Boston defense to slow down in front of Thomas.

The attack doesn’t stop there. Stamkos is better than most forwards at finding seams and soft spots. A righthanded shot, he is deadly when he sets up for one-timers at the left circle.

The rest of the up-front crew blends skill with bite. Sean Bergenheim, the bump-first Finn, leads the Lightning with seven playoff goals. Ryan Malone, the 6-foot-4-inch, 219-pound former Penguin, is like Philadelphia’s Scott Hartnell — a left-shot wing who likes going to the dirty areas and engaging fellow widebodies. Steve Downie (2-10—12 in 10 playoff games) backs down from few challengers, as his rap sheet shows. Downie was suspended for one game in the first round for crushing Pittsburgh’s Ben Lovejoy.

Ex-Bruin Nate Thompson is Boucher’s ace penalty-killer. Thompson, once Providence’s captain, kills penalties alongside Adam Hall. Another valuable depth forward is Dominic Moore. The former Harvard star has been so reliable that Boucher has been giving Moore shifts among the top-six attack.

“What’s given them some success, especially in the playoffs, has been that their third, fourth lines have done a pretty good job for them,’’ Julien said. “Everybody’s talking about St. Louis, Lecavalier, Stamkos, Malone, those kinds of guys. But the Bergenheims, the Moores, Thompson, they’re all playing pretty hard. I think that’s really helped them a lot. They’re a team that competes very hard. That’s what’s made them successful. To me, they outworked Washington. There’s no doubt about that. They’re a committed group. You can tell just by watching the games.’’

The Bruins were given the weekend off. They will practice this morning at Ristuccia Arena. The schedule for the Eastern Conference finals has not been determined . . . Defenseman Adam McQuaid practiced alongside a handful of extra players yesterday under the watch of Providence assistant coach Bruce Cassidy. McQuaid most likely will be ready for the start of the series, said Julien . . . Patrice Bergeron continued to rest as he recovers from his latest concussion. The Flyers’ Claude Giroux delivered the check that led to the head injury in Game 4. Giroux’s hit, while legal, fell under the cloudy category of check-finishing. Julien noted that such hits, which occur when the puck is nowhere in sight, are ingrained in the game and would require significant attention to alter. “A lot of it is culture,’’ Julien said. “At some point, you hope that everybody’s going to get on the same page — players, coaches, everybody involved in the game of hockey — and say, ‘We’ve got to change the culture here and try to minimize those things.’ But easier said than done.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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