The Bruins very clearly understand they have an existential divisional problem with the Tampa Bay Lightning at this point.
B’s head coach Bruce Cassidy wasn’t shying away from it when talking to the media a few days after the Lightning dispatched the Black and Gold in a tidy five games, the second time in three seasons the Bolts needed only five games to take care of Boston in a best-of-seven playoff series. That’s as unmistakable of a sign that it’s not close between these two hockey teams as you’re likely to get in the postseason.
Things will obviously need to change for the Bruins to challenge a divisional rival in Tampa they’ll undoubtedly face every year given the way the NHL playoff format is currently structured. It’s no secret the Lightning are younger than the B’s with Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steve Stamkos all 30 years old or younger, and they have looked deeper, faster and more well-rounded in each of the last two playoff meetings as well.
“We feel we’re a really good team, too, and Tampa just happens to be right beside us in our division. If you look over the past three years of the last regular season teams that have had the most success, I’m sure we’re each in the top three. That’s a bit of tough luck being right beside them in the division, but that’s the hand we’re dealt,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I’m sure Toronto doesn’t feel that good being in our division, Florida, these teams that have to go through two. We feel we have to go through one. Do we have to do things better? Yes.
"I think this year’s five-game loss, we’re further ahead than we were two years ago. I truly believe that. We were more competitive except for the 7-1 game. I think we had some personnel that weren’t functioning at 100 percent and we had some personnel out of the lineup that could have helped us. Would it have been enough to win the series? That’s anybody’s guess. Right now, I feel like we’re very competitive with Tampa. They’ve had the better hand, so the facts don’t dictate that but that’s how I feel.”
It’s not all bad, obviously. Patrice Bergeron made a good point indicating the two head-to-head matchups in the last three postseasons can help develop playoff tendencies, and cultivate more of a book on how to beat the Lightning moving forward. You’d expect nothing less from a competitive guy like Bergeron who always feels he’s got a competitive shot against any hockey team in the postseason no matter the past history or the odds.
“They’re a great team. I feel like the way they’re structured is a bit like us. They have a core and they add some pieces every year and they are competitive. They’re not an easy team to play against by any means. But that being said, it’s one of those things where you have to find ways and as the years go on and you battle you get used to them and find tendencies that you can use to counter [their effectiveness],” said Bergeron.
“To me it’s more worrying about what we can do and what we can bring. It’s about learning from past experiences and I think that’s something we’ve done in the past in my career. We’ve had some struggles and we finally got past teams, and I think it will be no different with Tampa. That being said, it’s not easy. It’s definitely a team that’s given us some trouble in the playoffs, but not something we need to be overly concerned about.”
There’s also the simple fact that the salary cap will do some damage to the Lightning after this season where a number of complementary players will be gone, and they’ll need to find cap space to sign promising young D-man Mikhail Sergachev. But the B’s clearly understand that a younger, deeper Tampa team is going to be a problem for years to come as long as their young core group remains intact with pieces around them.
“We obviously had their number for a few years there and they made some changes I think to combat our physicality. They've obviously always had skill and they've always been a talented team. But they brought a little bit more of a physical presence in the last few years. I mean they kind of have it all now,” said Brad Marchand. “They have a great goalie, they have a ton of scoring ability with a couple of the top guys in the league, and they have a lot of depth.
“Then their back end, they’re all I don't know what -- 6-foot-3 and above and like 220 pounds each -- so they’re a difficult team to play. I think a number of years there where they've kind of fallen short with their skill, they realize they need to get a little bit stronger and a little more physical and they've just been able to put it together the last few years. I'm sure Toronto says the same thing, they have a great team and we've come up against each other and with the new playoff format that's in place you're playing teams in the second round that you should be playing in third round. At the end of day, it really doesn't matter; you have to beat four good teams to win the Cup and that's just the way it is nowadays. But Tampa -- I mean, they’re a great team, we are a great team and it's just the way it kind of is.”
That is the way it is, and now it’s Boston’s turn to make the adjustments that the Lightning did heading into this postseason.
The Bruins need to figure out ways to change -- get bigger and younger up front, better 5-on-5 -- and adapt to beat the Lightning. Otherwise they will be banging their head and lamenting their tough second-round playoff matchup year-in and year-out. Until the B’s actually prove they can push the Lightning in a playoff series, it’s all just talk, and they haven’t come close to doing that to this point with these two iterations of Boston and Tampa Bay.