By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Claude Julien’s Bruins split four games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and swept three games from the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, so he quite a bit of the two teams that will be competing in the Eastern Conference finals starting Friday.READ MORE: No Arrests Made, Victim Remains In Critical Condition Following South Shore Plaza Shooting
Unfortunately for Julien, the Bruins’ all-time leader in coaching wins has had plenty of time to watch the postseason because his team failed to qualify for the tournament for the second straight season. He’s been watching intently as both the Penguins and Lightning have hit their stride in terms of executing their plays and systems. Both have also found production from numerous different sources like so many championship-caliber teams before them, including the 2011 Bruins.
When the Bruins won their first two games against Pittsburgh this season, Mike Sullivan was in his first week as coach after replacing Mike Johnston. The Bruins beat the Penguins one more time in February. It’s taken a few months, but now the Penguins are playing Sullivan’s system almost to perfection. Like every other observer, Julien has been impressed with the secondary scoring coming from the line of Nick Bonino centering Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin. That line has combined for 30 points in 11 games.
He’s also been impressed by the Penguins’ defensemen and the rapid maturation of rookie Matt Murray into a successful playoff goalie.
More than anything, Julien’s been impressed with the Penguins’ relentlessness over 200 feet of ice.
“I like their team,” Julien said in a phone conversation this week. “Offensively, I think they’re really aggressive. But not only that, when they get the puck in the offensive zone they really do a good job of cycling that puck and moving their feet. They’re not standing still. They’re cycling, they’re moving their feet, they’re moving the puck, they’re taking pucks to the net. They’ve got some guys that, you saw in that series against Washington, are determined to go to the net and pay the price around there. I think that’s going to be again a big factor for them against Tampa. [Ben] Bishop’s a pretty good goaltender and if they’re going to score goals [they’ll need to] be aggressive like they were against Washington.”
The Penguins defeated the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in six games with an aggression that will play a prominent role against the Lightning.READ MORE: Man Shot By Police In Burlington Hospitalized With Life-Threatening Injuries
“I think [the Penguins] have done a great job. I look at them in the D zone and they’re so quick to close. They never gave Washington time and space,” Julien said. “I think that was key for their defensive game. When I say they’ve peaked at the right time, they seem really committed to all aspects of the game. I find them aggressive on the forecheck. Sometimes even the third man, he’s a little bit low but his commitment and the commitment of their forwards to come back on the forecheck has been really, really good. Even in the offensive zone, the fact that they’re closing quickly, defensively they’ve been good that way as well.”
With injuries to defenseman Anton Stralman (who might be ready to return for the Penguins series) and forward Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have had to find more role players to step up than Pittsburgh. That search has worked out well for Tampa Bay. Tyler Johnson (13 points) has led the Lightning in scoring but they have also received key goals from fourth-line center Brian Boyle and nine points from one-time AHL castoff Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in 2013 who demanded a trade earlier in the season.
“They’re an experienced team,” Julien said. “They’ve got good balance throughout their lineup. [Valtteri] Filppula is a third-line center, but he’s a pretty good guy to have in that position. You know we always look at the top two lines, but that third line, like the Bonino example on Pittsburgh, they play big roles, especially in the playoffs. You look at fourth liners in the past, what they’ve done, not just our team but even other teams, so I like the fact that Filppula is a real good third-line centerman. When you look at Boyle, who plays on the fourth line, he’s done a great job. I see a lot of similarities between those two teams that are having success right now. They’re not just relying on their top players. It’s really been a lot of guys stepping up and doing the job for both teams. I think that’s been huge.”
Julien said Tampa Bay isn’t as aggressive defensively as Pittsburgh, but the Lightning thrive on the rush with stars like Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. Plus they know how to turn up the heat in front of the opposing net, which might present Murray with his stiffest test yet.
“Where Tampa is dangerous too is on the rush. When they turn pucks over they can be a dangerous team on the rush,” Julien said. “They make things happen right off the bat and in tight they funnel a lot of pucks to the net. Like even from the half wall, from the corner, they’ll throw pucks in front of the net. They like to have guys there either hit their leg or tipping it in. But they’re a team that likes to funnel a lot of pucks to the net.”
Asking Julien to make a prediction for the series would be asking him provide bulletin-board material for one of the combatants for next season. Clearly, he highly respects both teams. And while he’ll be watching the series as a fan, he’ll also be in coaching mode – as he has been throughout the playoffs – studying tendencies of future foes and looking for anything that might help the Bruins going forward.
“You have certain types of players, if you look at other teams that may have those types of players, you say, ‘How can I incorporate some of that into our guys here in certain situations?’” Julien said. “No doubt I don’t watch just to watch; you try and better yourself all the time.”MORE NEWS: Brookline Police Providing Extra Presence At Temples After 'Suspicious Activity'
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.