Here comes the one team the Lightning needs to avoid

Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the final minute on March 8. The Bruins won 3-2. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Boston Bruins left wing Brad Marchand celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in the final minute on March 8. The Bruins won 3-2. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Published March 16 2018
Updated March 16 2018

Big game Saturday night.

As far as regular-season games go, this showdown between the Lightning and Bruins is a pretty good one. It's the most interesting regular-season game so far this season and certainly worth watching.

But let's not get too carried away with what it all means and let's not read too much into the result.

Sure, it should be lots of fun. Two really good teams. The crowd will be into it. That combination is always a blast no matter what is at stake. And, yeah, there is a bit of added intrigue. The two are fighting for the division lead and seem to be on a collision course in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

But as much as we might want to attach a greater meaning to it, Saturday's game is still just a regular-season game. Regular-season hockey just isn't the same as playoff hockey.

Plus, the Bruins are missing some key pieces, while the Lightning is still trying to incorporate a couple of new players into its lineup. What these teams look like and how they play Saturday will not be what they look like and how they play if they happen to meet in the postseason.

And one other thing: after Saturday, the Lightning still has two regular-season games left against the Bruins.

Now, having said all that and no matter how Saturday plays out, here comes the part that Lightning fans aren't going to like:

If I'm the Lightning, I want no part of the Bruins come playoff time. Boston is the one team — the only team — I don't think the Lightning would beat in a seven-game series.

This Lightning team is outstanding, and it wouldn't be a Miracle on Ice if it goes on to win the Stanley Cup. But this gut feeling that Boston would win a seven-game series is more about the big, bad Bruins than it is about the Lightning.

The Eastern Conference is loaded with good teams.

Start with the two-time defending champion Penguins with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who is playing as well as any player in the world at the moment. A similar Penguins team eliminated a similar Lightning team in the Eastern Conference final two years ago.

There are the Capitals. They have Alex Ovechkin, who is still the best pure goal-scorer in the game. And the Caps are a team that, at times, can give Tampa Bay fits physically.

Toronto is young and hungry. Florida plays the Lightning tough. Philadelphia was hot there for a while. The Blue Jackets have been hot of late. New Jersey's Taylor Hall has been a scoring machine.

All of those teams are dangerous, but bring them on.

Tampa Bay has better goaltending than the Penguins. It is more experienced than the Maple Leafs. It has solved the mystery to beat the Caps. And it is just flat out better than Philly, Jersey, Columbus, the stinkin' Panthers and every other team in the East.

Except Boston.

The Bruins are downright scary.

Let's begin in goal where they have Tuukka Rask, who is capable of stealing a series against anyone and has owned the Lightning in his career. In the past six seasons, Rask is 13-4-1 against the Lightning and is 5-1 over the past two seasons.

That's a big reason why the Bruins have had serious dominance over the Lightning in the past seven seasons. They are 16-4-1 against Tampa Bay, including a 3-2 victory earlier this season in Boston.

Speaking of "in" Boston, that is a house of horrors for the Lightning. In 53 games including playoffs at Boston, the Lightning has won only eight times.
Now, what happened 20 years ago should have no impact on today, but when numbers are lopsided like that, you start to wonder if there is a psychological factor involved. (And, oh, before you ask, the Bruins have won 26 of 49 games played at Tampa Bay.)

Meantime, the Bruins are skilled at forward, stingy on defense and tough in both.

Look, this isn't to suggest that the Lightning has no chance against the Bruins in a seven-game series. When you have Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and an improved defense with the addition of Ryan McDonagh and a big-time goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, you have a team good enough to beat anyone.

But if I was forced to bet everything I owned, I'd go with Boston in a seven-game series. The Bruins just seem to have the Lightning figured out.

The good news for Tampa Bay is, unless the Leafs go on a tear and win the win division, the Lightning will avoid having to play the Bruins in the first round. The best-case scenario is a team such as Toronto does Tampa Bay's dirty work and eliminates the Bruins before the Lightning has to play them.

So, if you're a Lightning fan, enjoy Saturday's game. With any luck, you won't have to see the Bruins come playoff time.