Lightning falls out of first in division

A 4-2 loss to the surging Bruins ends Tampa Bay's stay at the top after more than five months.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli, right, and Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask stretch for the puck during a third-period sequence that leads to a Lightning goal that is disallowed on a goaltender interference call against Cirelli. (Associated Press)
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli, right, and Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask stretch for the puck during a third-period sequence that leads to a Lightning goal that is disallowed on a goaltender interference call against Cirelli. (Associated Press)
Published March 30, 2018

BOSTON — If the Lightning ends up going on a deep playoff run this summer, the image of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy charging the length of the ice Thursday to challenge Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask will go down in franchise lore.

There's still a long way to go before that. And for the first time since Oct. 18 — roughly 70 games — Tampa Bay has fallen out of first place in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins' 4-2 victory ensured that. Boston is up by a point with a game in hand and one meeting left between the teams, Tuesday in Tampa.

But the Lightning didn't give it up without a fight. The final 40 minutes were an encouraging sign the potential playoff matchup isn't as one-sided as the Bruins' 3-0 season record against the Lightning might indicate.

"The regular season is the regular season," captain Steven Stamkos said. "(Thursday) was probably a good indication of what the games would be like, two teams that were ready to play, to play a game of this caliber this time of the year. Hats off to them. They found a way to win. They've had our number, and they're a really good hockey team."

WATCH: Highlights from the Lightning-Bruins game.

The Bruins are playing like the best team in the division, and likely the Eastern Conference. But the Lightning doesn't believe it's far off. Watching the Lightning and Bruins play a seven-game series, let's say a month from now, would be one heck of a sight.

The Bruins were without key defensemen Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. But this was a very even game, especially in the final two periods, when Stamkos thought the Lightning was the better team.

"We controlled the play," he said.

The Lightning, coming off a lackluster loss Monday to the Coyotes, showed the kind of emotion and pushback that has been elusive over 60 minutes in recent memory.

"There was a lot of passion; there were a lot of hits," Alex Killorn said.

"A playoff-like atmosphere," Stamkos said.

Tampa Bay, admittedly anxious in a 3-0 shutout loss to Boston on March 17, got off to a better start this time. But midway through the first period, the Bruins started to take over. A structured, skilled team even without their top defensemen, they controlled play.

RELATED: Stamkos, Hedman shake off injuries to face Bruins.

And when the Lightning finally made a mistake, Boston made it pay.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, the Lightning's biggest deadline acquisition, coughed up the puck at his blue line in the final minute of the period. A few seconds later, the Bruins scored a rebound goal by Tim Schaller.
A deflating goal, no doubt. And it got worse. Thirty seconds later, and four seconds into a power play, David Pastrnak scored to make it 2-0 Bruins with 26 seconds left.

The Lightning could have packed it in. Game over. But it fought back — literally.

The second period might have been one of the Lightning's best all season. It played the type of shutdown hockey it needs in the playoffs.

"That's the way we want to play," Victor Hedman said. "The way we know how to play."

It helped that J.T. Miller scored on a power play just under two minutes in. That helped settle things down. And the Lightning kept the pressure on, outshooting the Bruins 11-3 in the period.

The game came to a boil midway through the period. Cory Conacher went hard to the Boston net and got pushed into the crease by a Bruins defender. Rask got made and punched Conacher in the back. That started a melee. Vasilevskiy went flying down the ice to join in, needing to be held back by referee Francois St. Laurent.

"That was a spark for us, for sure," Stamkos said.

"I loved it," Killorn said.

Tampa Bay thought it tied the score seven minutes into the third. There was a scramble around the Boston net, with rookie Anthony Cirelli in the crease. Alex Killorn came from behind the net and scored on a wrapround, but the goal was immediately waved off due to a goalie interference call on Cirelli. Angry coach Jon Cooper challenged the call; it was upheld.

"I don't know what else (Cirelli) could do," Killorn said. "It didn't look like Rask made an effort to get across (the crease)."

"There was no way he was going to come across to make that save," Stamkos said.

The Bruins closed it out with an empty-net goal. Boston's Brad Marchand mouthed "It's over" to the raucous fans, who yelled "We want the CUP!"

It looks like the Lightning's Cup hopes will have to go through Boston.

Bruins 2 0 2 4

Lightning 0 1 1 2
First Period—1, Boston, Schaller 12 (Wingels), 19:02. 2, Boston, Pastrnak 32 (Bergeron, Krug), 19:34 (pp). Penalties—Point, TB, (holding), 8:12; K.Miller, BOS, (high sticking), 14:26; Killorn, TB, (interference), 19:29.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, J.Miller 21 (Kucherov, Hedman), 1:44 (pp). Penalties—Gionta, BOS, (boarding), 1:18; Donato, BOS, (high sticking), 8:41; Conacher, TB, (interference), 11:16; Conacher, TB, (roughing), 11:16; Rask, BOS, served by Wingels, (roughing), 11:16; Vasilevskiy, TB, served by Paquette, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 11:16; Rask, BOS, served by Wingels, (roughing), 11:16; McQuaid, BOS, (hooking), 16:10.
Third Period—4, Boston, Bergeron 28 (Marchand, Krug), 11:59. 5, Tampa Bay, Hedman 15 (Girardi, Gourde), 13:54. 6, Boston, Marchand 34 (Bergeron, Pastrnak), 19:04. Penalties—Girardi, TB, Major (fighting), 7:16; Pastrnak, BOS, Major (fighting), 7:16; Paquette, TB, (roughing), 10:13; Backes, BOS, (roughing), 10:13; J.Miller, TB, (roughing), 19:54; Kucherov, TB, (slashing), 19:54; Acciari, BOS, (slashing), 19:54; Schaller, BOS, (roughing), 19:54. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 6-11-11—28. Boston 17-3-10—30. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 4; Boston 1 of 2. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 42-15-3 (29 shots-26 saves). Boston, Rask 32-11-5 (28-26). A—17,565 (17,565). Referees—Trevor Hanson, Francois St. Laurent. Linesmen—Michel Cormier, Matt MacPherson.