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Lightning-Bruins matchup brings touch of familiarity to unusual circumstances

Even when using an adjusted playoff format, the division rivals meet in the conference semifinals.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save against Boston Bruins center Charlie Coyle (13) during the first period of a round-robin game Aug. 5.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save against Boston Bruins center Charlie Coyle (13) during the first period of a round-robin game Aug. 5. [ NATHAN DENETTE | Associated Press ]
Published Aug. 22, 2020
Updated Aug. 23, 2020

With all the peculiarities the season has brought for the NHL — two Canadian bubbles for the postseason, an expanded playoff format with qualifying series and round robins in the middle of summer — the Eastern Conference semifinals still bring the Lightning and Bruins together for what should be an entertaining series starting tonight in Toronto.

“I think it’s two teams that play with a lot of pride and, obviously, guys that have been on each other’s teams for quite awhile,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Saturday. “You’re familiar with the style that they play, and the intensity is going to be there, for sure, right from the start.”

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Tampa Bay’s five meetings with Boston so far this season have provided scouting reports. The Lightning had a 3-1 edge in the regular season and won the round-robin game between the two 3-2 on Aug. 5.

“We know each other, and it makes our prescouts probably a lot easier,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You know the makeup of the players, and their core group is pretty much the same, and so is ours.”

Cooper joked that the bubble in Toronto could have changed something because both teams have been staying in Hotel X and seeing each other daily for about four weeks now. “I don’t know how that’s going to play into things,” he said.

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“We’ve had some pretty intense games with them since (the 2018 postseason),” Cooper said “And then we’ve had some pretty intense games with them since, and usually they’re one-goal games, and usually there’s some sort of fireworks that have happened in the game. It’s two competitive teams, and I think when two teams have been at the top of the standings, you’re battling it out over the years, that’s what you’re going to get.”

Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said the teams were destined to meet in the postseason again after 2018, when the Lightning beat the Bruins 4-1 in the East semifinals. But he, like many others, assumed it would have happened last year, when both were atop the Atlantic Division. Instead, the Lightning were swept in the first round by the Blue Jackets.

The Bruins reached the Stanley Cup final, losing in seven games to the Blues. “We’ve grown since then, and I think we’re a better team,” Cassidy said. “I believe I’ve had more playoff experience, so now it’s going to be two very evenly matched teams going at it.”

Steven Stamkos still unavailable

Cooper said Steven Stamkos is still rehabilitating and unavailable to play. He did not give a timeline for when the captain might be able to return.

Stamkos has not played in a game since February, right before he had core muscle surgery. He then suffered a leg injury in voluntary workouts during the league’s shutdown.

Related: Lightning confront bubble life while waiting on start of conference semifinals

During the two-week training camp before teams left for the bubble, Stamkos skated solo for multiple days, then joined special-teams practice before group work. Stamkos went the entire camp without skating in a full session.

Since the team arrived in Toronto four weeks ago, he hasn’t played, missing nine games.

“He’s not available right now; (he’s) rehabbing,” Cooper said. “And when he’s available, I’ll let you know. There’s no further updates. (It’s) pointless to keep asking about it.”

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.