TAMPA — The Big, Bad Bruins are in town.
No, not the rough and tumble team of decades ago. But, this year’s Bruins team could be the biggest challenge to the Lightning’s hopes for the ultimate prize.
Boston is one of the hottest teams in the NHL, right now. Sure, the Lightning holds a huge lead in the standings, but the Bruins are the only other team in the Eastern Conference to lock up a playoff spot.
Bolts Nation has been talking about Washington, the team that embarrassed the Lightning in the playoffs last year. But to get there, Tampa Bay will likely need to go through Boston and that isn’t a foregone conclusion.
It’s never easy when the Lightning plays the Bruins.
Remember that shelling in Boston a month ago? Or the tight game that came down to the final minutes back in December? There’s always the emotional series in last year’s second round.
“They’re fun games to play in,” Jon Cooper said. “I think you learn a lot about your team. Just knowing how they are this year, for any team, they’re going to be a tough out in the playoffs.”
Last season at this time, the Lightning stumbled while the Bruins surged. Boston ended up only one point behind Tampa Bay. The Bruins can’t mathematically catch the Lightning this season, but at this point it’s more about momentum to carry into the postseason.
The Bruins need to get through Toronto, not an easy task, and the Lightning through a yet-to-be-determined opponent (Montreal, currently, but could be Carolina, Columbus or Pittsburgh). Either way, their paths seem to be set, aiming at each other.
These two teams know each other well, maybe too well. Familiarity breeds rivalry.
“It’s basically the same core on both teams, usually finishing right around each other in the standings,” Cooper said. “The teams have both grown to know there’s a chance that we might be going through each other to move on.”
In part as a function of the consistent rosters, the styles of play and identities haven’t changed much either. The Lightning plays a speed, skilled game. Tampa Bay has increased its physicality, but it’s base is the same. Boston plays a checking game.
“We know what to expect from them,” Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve seen them plenty, and it’s always a challenge playing them.”
He referenced a high-scoring top line and then solid checking through the rest of the lineup. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak make up that top line. All have at least 30 goals and they’ve combined for 96.
Tampa Bay has deeper scoring, but Boston has managed to limit that in two games so far this year. The Lightning, which averages four goals a game, has a total of four against the Bruins.
Boston is second in the league in goals against, allowing only 189. The Lightning is next on the list at 202.
The team claims its focused on tonight, on finishing the regular season before thinking about the first round, never mind the second or third. The rest of us can look ahead, though.
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Tonight’s game may well be a good preview of what’s to come in a month.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.