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Lightning face big challenges from Toronto, Boston

Two of its fiercest divisional opponents bookend Tampa Bay’s early road trip
The Lightning and Mathieu Joseph hope to step up their play on this road trip, which includes top Atlantic Division contenders Toronto and Boston. [KARL B DEBLAKER | AP]
Published Oct. 9
Updated Oct. 10

BRANDON — The Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs have fought over the Atlantic Division’s top three spots since the 2016-17 season.

The Lightning aren’t in one of those spots today, but those teams again appear to be the division’s three best. And Tampa Bay will meet the other two on a road trip that starts tonight in Toronto and ends in Boston on Oct. 17.

MORE LIGHTNING: Looks like Brayden Point is ready to play

It’s a departure from last year, when the Lightning didn’t visit either team until Feb. 28.

“It’s good,” said Brayden Point, who is expected to make his season debut tonight after offseason hip surgery. “It gets you right into the year right away.”

Last year the Bruins and Maple Leafs gave the Lightning some of their toughest games. Tampa Bay won each season series 3-1, but the games were almost always hard fought.

The Maple Leafs outplayed the Lightning in December in a 4-1 Tampa Bay win that Andrei Vasilevskiy nearly single-handedly earned in his first game back from injury. Then in January the Maple Leafs beat the Lightning a tight game that ended 4-2 on an empty-netter.

This year the Leafs have started 2-1-1. Auston Matthews has five goals, and Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly have five points each.

Toronto and Tampa Bay often draw comparisons because each team has a deep pool of talent. The Maple Leafs’ top two lines are centered by Matthews and John Tavares, among the game’s top centers. The Lightning had the same 1-2 punch last season with Steven Stamkos and Point, but this year they are putting the two with Nikita Kucherov on one super line.

This season the Leafs added Tyson Barrie, a top-pair-caliber defenseman who plays on the second pair behind Rielly and Cody Ceci.

“Knowing what’s at stake, knowing this could be a potential playoff matchup,” Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said, “we want to be sure we’re setting the tone early.”

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The Bruins played the Lightning close in two of their losses last year. The season finale, the Lightning’s record-tying 62nd win, ended with a lopsided score, 6-3, that didn’t reflect the game’s nature. The Bruins completely outplayed the Lightning in recording their lone win, 4-1 in February.

This season, the Bruins have opened with three straight wins on the road and are in first place in the division. They gave up only one goal in their first two games before a 4-3 win over Vegas on Tuesday.

Boston’s top line has found its groove. Brad Marchand has four points, David Pastrnak has three and Patrice Bergeron two. So far the Bruins have shown they won’t beat themselves.

Anthony Cirelli called this trip a tough test for the Lightning. It’s one of the longest they’ll take this season with four games over nine days.

He likes getting some of these road games out of the way early, rather than piling on visits close together at the end of the season.

There’s another advantage to this timing. Stamkos figures that playing elite teams is the best way to wash away the “stinker” the Lightning played in losing to the Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime Sunday.

“There’s no better way to come off a bad game than to face a really good challenge,” he said.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Lightning forward Yanni Gourde and the rest of the team have to play with more consistency. The fifth of six consecutive road games takes place Tuesday in Montreal. FRED CHARTRAND  |  AP
    A Stanley Cup favorite beat the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, but a lackluster group fell to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday.
  2. Ottawa Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki (74) collides with Tampa Bay Lightning centre Alex Killorn (17) and centre Anthony Cirelli during second period of NHL action in Ottawa, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. FRED CHARTRAND  |  AP
    Diana C. Nearhos’ takeaways: Brayden Point shouldn’t be dropping the gloves. Lightning aren’t rolling four lines. Senators’ arena leaves a lot to be desired.
  3. Ottawa Senators center Vladislav Namestnikov (90) attempts to check Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) during first period of NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday. FRED CHARTRAND  |  AP
    Tampa Bay drafted Namestnikov in the first round eight years ago. He had two goals and an assist for the Senators.
  4. Ottawa Senators goaltender Craig Anderson (41) scoops the puck up in front of Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) as Senators defenseman Nikita Zaitsev (22) defends during the first period Saturday. FRED CHARTRAND  |  AP
    Giving up opportunities off the rush has been a recurring issue for Tampa Bay early this season.
  5. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Mathieu Joseph (7) celebrates a goal during the third period against the Florida Panthers last weekend in Sunrise. BRYNN ANDERSON  |  AP
    Slap Shots: Tampa Bay would like to be at home, but as far as road trips go, this one isn’t too bad.
  6. Victor Hedman played his 700th game in Toronto on Thursday. COLE BURSTON  |  AP
    Teammates call Hedman the “nicest guy you’ll ever meet” and the “ultimate friend.”
  7. Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77), right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrate a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period. COLE BURSTON  |  AP
    Tampa Bay takes its shot, over and over again, against the Maple Leafs.
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his goal with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98), defenseman Victor Hedman (77), and center Steven Stamkos (91) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Toronto. COLE BURSTON  |  AP
    The trio start Thursday’s game together and it’s safe to say that’s a winning combo: Lightning 7, Maple Leafs 3.
  9. The Lightning and Mathieu Joseph hope to step up their play on this road trip, which includes top Atlantic Division contenders Toronto and Boston. KARL B DEBLAKER  |  AP
    Two of its fiercest divisional opponents bookend Tampa Bay’s early road trip
  10. Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) works the puck through the Detroit zone during the second period of a March 9 game vs. Detroit at Amalie Arena. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times
    Don’t be surprised if Point is in the lineup Thursday against Toronto.
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