TAMPA, Fla. -- We're finally at the elimination point of the Eastern Conference Finals. Tampa Bay needs to win Wednesday's Game 6 at St. Pete Times Forum to keep its season alive. Boston will advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years with a victory.
If Tampa Bay does prevail Wednesday night, a winner-take-all Game 7 will be in Boston on Friday.
Yet, despite how deep we are into this series, so many questions remain. Here are six of the biggest facing both teams heading into Game 6:
1. Will Zdeno Chara see more time as forward on the power play?
It appears likely. Boston's man-advantage unit has struggled throughout the postseason and has just four goals in 16 games. In Game 5, it was more of the same as Boston couldn't generate anything on its first two power-play chances, including a long 4-on-3. So, on the final PP of the game, Boston coach Claude Julien deployed the huge defenseman as a net-front presence and the power play showed some modest signs of life.
"Possibly; I liked what he did last game in front of the net," Julien said Wednesday morning. "But he's only going to be useful in front of the net if we put him there and if we get control of the puck and we get some shots on net. The first few power plays (in Game 5), we didn't really get control of the puck. It didn't matter who was in front at that point. So I didn't mind what he did. And I think we need to see how this game unfolds. But it's certainly a possibility."
2. Does Dwayne Roloson's return to the net change Boston's game plan at all?
It shouldn't in any major way. It is likely, though, that their schemes for gaining the offensive zone will change a bit. Against Mike Smith, the starter in Game 5, Boston eschewed the soft dump-ins because Smith is a superior puck handler. He was able to corral those pucks and turn the play the other way with quick outlet passes. Roloson is a far less-accomplished puck handler, so Boston will try to establish its chip-and-chase philosophy.
"Well, we know that Smith is a great puck handler, and he likes to come out of his net," Julien said. "He likes to play the puck. If we didn't get good line changes, he could make us pay for it. That's an adjustment you make. We were prepared for either-or last game. It really didn't matter. That was their decision to make, but we certainly didn't put a lot of our attention towards that, just being ready. Tonight, knowing that it's Roloson, I don't think it changes much in our approach to the game. But we do know that there are certain things that we can or cannot do. They each have their strengths and they each have their weaknesses and it's up to us to exploit those weaknesses."
3. Can the Bruins string together three consecutive periods of solid hockey?
They better hope so, because that is likely the only way they will beat what is sure to be a Tampa Bay team playing its most desperate hockey of the season. In fact, the Bruins might want to try to duplicate the effort in Game 3 here when they played a perfect road game by getting an early goal and then suffocating the life out of the Lightning in a 2-0 victory. In every other game, Boston has had at least a momentary lapse. In Game 4, they took a 3-0 lead here, but fell apart during the final 40 minutes of the game. Monday, Boston played an awful first period, but rallied for a 3-1 win.
"We just have to be controlled focus and enjoy the moment we are in," defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said. "In the series so far, teams have had a lot of letdowns, a lot of uncharacteristic goals have been scored. I think for both teams, they are looking to play a solid defensive game and being really stingy with their defense."
4. Will the "Big Three" for Tampa Bay shine?
Guy Boucher tried to refute the notion that his team has a "Big Three," but the Lightning almost certainly need more from Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos in Game 6. The trio has combined for three points in the past three games -- one empty-net goal by St. Louis and one assist each for Lecavalier and Stamkos.
Boucher said Stamkos was very good in Game 5, and could have had two or three points. The coach also said Stamkos has learned the difference between "being a star and being a winner." Stamkos called this the biggest game of his life. He has shown the ability to create chances when it appeared there would be none because of his speed, so maybe his youth and his wheels will be a key factor Wednesday night. All three of them can expect to see a lot of Chara, who has had a couple of so-so performances but was fantastic in Games 3 and 5.
5. Will Sean Bergenheim play?
Bergenheim skated Wednesday morning for about five minutes in a helmet and a sweatsuit. He did some laps and appeared to be testing a lower-body issue. He left Game 5 with an undisclosed injury late in the first period and did not return. Boucher said the team's medical staff was treating him after the morning skate and he wouldn't know until closer to game time if the Finnish forward would be available.
If Bergenheim doesn't play, Boucher will either insert Dana Tyrell into the lineup at forward or go back to using seven defensemen and dress Randy Jones. Bergenheim leads the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs with 9 goals, so obviously it would be a big loss for the Lightning. Whether Boucher goes with 11 forwards or 12, expect him to double-shift Lecavalier and Stamkos at times if Bergenheim cannot go for Tampa Bay. If he cannot play, someone else will have to be a secondary scoring hero for the Lightning.
6. How will Roloson respond to his one-game break?
Roloson has been pulled twice in this series and sat for Game 5 in favor of Smith. He's allowed 13 goals in less than three full games of action against the Bruins after yielding only 13 in seven contests against Pittsburgh. Boucher expects him to be better because of the rest.
After giving up 19 goals in four games in mid-Februrary, Boucher gave Roloson a few days off and he came back with three straight victories, allowing just five goals in that span. Roloson said desperate is not a word he likes to use in his vocabulary, and called this just another game like any other. He does boast a 6-0 career record in postseason elimination games -- three straight wins for Minnesota against Vancouver in the second round in 2003 and three consecutive victories against the Penguins this year.