TAMPA — J.T. Miller didn't have to be with the Lightning long to realize the significance of Saturday's showdown with the Bruins.
"The biggest game of the year," he said.
The Bruins are four points behind Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic Division lead. Saturday is the first of three meetings in the final three weeks that could determine the division title and home ice.
If you're the Lightning, you don't want to finish second and have to potentially beat both Boston and Toronto on a Stanley Cup run.
The Bruins are banged up, missing center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Charlie McAvoy, captain Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk.
But this will be a measuring stick for the Lightning coming off a 7-4 clunker of a loss to Ottawa Tuesday. Captain Steven Stamkos said Tampa Bay hasn't found its "recipe for the playoffs yet."
"We have to come play one of our best games in two months to take a team like Boston," said four-time Cup winner Chris Kunitz. "… If we don't go out there and put our best foot forward we're probably not going to last too long in the playoffs."
Here's three reasons the Bruins are a tough matchup for the Lightning:
The four-time Selke Award winner as the league's top defensive forward is out with a fractured foot suffered in late February but is expected back for the playoffs. He can shut down opponent's top lines (like a Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov) and dominate the dot. Bergeron wins 56.9 percent of his faceoff. Not a good matchup for the Lightning, one of the league's worst faceoff teams.
When healthy, Bergeron , Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are one of the league's most dominant lines.
Said NBCSN analyst Pierre McGuire: "He frustrates star players, he's an elite faceoff player. Boston really has the puck more than they don't have it and Tampa likes to be a puck-possession team so that becomes a problem, (the Lightning) is chasing it rather than controlling it. He's an elite penalty killer, and Tampa's power play is one of the best. He can take that away in a hurry."
They rarely beat themselves
The Bruins don't have a glaring weakness. They're deep up front and on the blueline. Their power play is 7th in the league (21.6 percent) and their penalty kill is stout also, 11th at 81.6.
"They're a team that plays the right way," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "They play hard. They don't beat themselves."
When Rask, the veteran goalie, entered a mid-November matchup with the Lightning on a career-most four-game losing streak, coach Jon Cooper didn't read too much into it.
In Cooper's words, Rask "has owned" the Lightning. And he's right. Rask is 13-4-1 in his career against Tampa Bay, including 5-1 the last two seasons. In that mid-November game in Boston, Rask made 19 saves, including two huge stops on Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov late to preserve the 3-2 win.
Rask has been arguably the league's hottest goalie in the second half, going 25-3-2 with a 2.13 goals-against average since Dec. 1.
Here's three things the Lightning can learn from their three games against Boston that could help in a playoff rematch:
Scout special teams
The Lightning ranks 26th in the league on the penalty kill at 76 percent. Boston has one of the better power plays, and McGuire said the Lightning can look for trends on the Bruins zone entries with the man advantage. How do they set up and attack? The Lightning also should break down the Bruins penalty kill in how they apply pressure points, McGuire said.
"They know the players," McGuire said. "You're just evaluating structure."
Diagnose the dot
There are 50 to 60 faceoffs a game, which go a long way in puck possession. If the Lightning is going to struggle in the dot, it's best to break down what type of plays the Bruins run out of faceoffs. Is there a Lightning center more successful against Bergeron? Who are the more favorable, less desirable draw matchups?
Tackle top line
This won't apply Saturday, with Bergeron out, but maybe for the March 29 game (in Boston) or April 3 (in Tampa). You have to figure out what line and defense pairings work best against the Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak line?
The Lightning has previously used a shutdown line of Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Yanni Gourde, but it can always mix it up. Having Miller, a 6-foot-1, 218 pound forward who is strong on faceoffs, could also help. So will defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who has faced the Bruins' top players many times in his years with the Rangers.
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith