Why the division title matters to the Lightning

A shot by Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17), left, misses the net by a few inches during the third period of March 17 game between the Lightning and the Bruins at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
A shot by Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17), left, misses the net by a few inches during the third period of March 17 game between the Lightning and the Bruins at Amalie Arena in Tampa. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Published March 28, 2018|Updated March 29, 2018

BOSTON — Worried about the Lightning?

Freaking out, maybe?

The fans' sense of panic hasn't quite hit the Tampa Bay dressing room. It is still a first-place team, a playoff team, an experienced team. You don't rack up 106 points by luck.

But the five-day stretch that begins today will be extremely telling for the Lightning, starting with tonight's showdown with the Bruins at TD Garden. It is the first of two final regular-season meetings between the teams, and those games will go a long way toward deciding the Atlantic Division winner. The Bruins trail Tampa Bay by one point, with a game in hand and seven to go.

Win tonight and you can bet the swagger will return to the Lightning, a team many consider a Stanley Cup contender. It will have to be a ton better than the group that has lost three of its past six, including Monday to Arizona, among the league's bottom dwellers.

"I think we've got to believe in ourselves," captain Steven Stamkos said. "This group was put together to be successful, and we've got to believe that."

The Bruins sent a strong message in the teams' last meeting, smothering the Lightning 3-0 in a St. Patrick's Day showdown at Amalie Arena. Boston put together a defensive clinic, handing Tampa Bay its only shutout loss of the season. And it did so without stars Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk. Sure, the Bruins benefited from two power-play goals, but defenseman Anton Stralman said the Lightning got outplayed. The Lightning looked tight, Stamkos calling it anxious.

"That was a good test," Stralman said. "Now we have to raise the bar."

Bergeron, an MVP candidate, was expected to play tonight. The Lightning hopes to have two of its biggest stars, Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman. Stamkos didn't play Monday due to a nagging injury, but he skated Wednesday, when Hedman did not. Coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday that he expected both to play against Boston.

A playoff spot is already clinched,  but the Lightning realizes how much a division title would be significant.

"For sure it's important," Stralman said. "You want the (home-ice) advantage. … You don't know who you're going to see in the playoffs. But it's always nice to have that, especially in Game 7, let's say, and you have that last chance, last home game."

Why a division title matters

Home ice: Winning the division for the Lightning would mean home ice through at least the Eastern Conference final. Home ice is not the be all and end all, but when you look at Tampa Bay's struggles in Boston (just seven regulation wins in 49 games) and Washington (16-37-4), that would come in handy.

Cooper has referenced often the Lightning's home Game 7 win over the Red Wings in the 2014-15 first round, which helped propel Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup final. The Lightning's 27-9-2 home record this seasons is among the best in the league.

"We've won series where we had home-ice advantage, and we've won series when we didn't have home ice," Cooper said. "We've lost series when we've had home ice. Home ice is only good if you do the right thing with it."

Better matchups: By winning the division, the Lightning would open the first round against the second wild-card team, which as of today is the Devils. But it could be the surging Panthers if they continue their roll. Boston could play a big role in determining Tampa Bay's opponent, with three remaining games versus the Panthers.

Neither the Panthers nor the Devils would be an easy matchup. New Jersey swept the three-game season series with Tampa Bay. But that would be preferable to finishing second in the division and having to go through Toronto and possibly Boston in back-to-back rounds. If Boston overtakes Tampa Bay for first, the Lightning would host the Maple Leafs in Round One. If it advances, it could next face a Boston team that had home ice.

The road ahead

Lightning: Six games left, with two against the Bruins, one against the best-in-the-NHL Predators, three against nonplayoff teams (at Rangers, versus Sabres, at Hurricanes). Two back-to-backs.

Bruins: Seven games left, with two against the Lightning, three against the Panthers (two at home), one game at the Flyers, one game home against the Senators. Two back-to-backs.