BRIGHTON, Mass. — Just a few weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning had crept to within one point of the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division, and it seemed inevitable that the red-hot Bolts would pass them by as they just kept on winning.
Fast-forward a couple of weeks and the Bruins are back up seven points over a Lightning team that’s cooled off, but with both big Atlantic Division dogs still seemingly destined for an early nasty postseason clash in the divisional bracket.
Tampa has a game in hand on the Black and Gold while chasing the Bruins, but they’ve also lost their captain, Steven Stamkos, ostensibly for the rest of the regular season after abdominal surgery this week.
Meanwhile, the Bruins have gone 12-3-0 out of the All-Star break and are hitting on all cylinders entering the final stretch run of the season. It just so happens that the B’s will have two showdowns with the Lightning this week, with the first taking place on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena and the second a home date on Saturday night.
Bruce Cassidy referenced both games as “measuring stick” contests rather than playing them up as divisional rivalry games with playoff implications, but it’s clear the Bruins are treating them as more important than the average game.
Certainly, there is some curiosity about how the Lightning will look after spending a couple first round picks to acquire speedy, pesky Blake Coleman and big, tough Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline.
“I look at it more as ‘We haven’t seen them in a long time’ and Tampa has been a really strong team since I’ve been here,” said Cassidy. “For us, it’s a measuring stick maybe. Here’s one of the best teams in our division — and I’d put us in that category as well — and let’s see what they’ve got. It’s less about that if we win this, we can start counting down [to a divisional title].
That would be great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more about where we are against this team. How do we match up against them with them having some new bodies [at the trade deadline]?
A sweep of the two games could basically wrap up the division for the Black and Gold with a commanding 11-point lead and would give the Bruins the inside track on home ice at least through the entire Eastern Conference portion of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It would also give them a psychological advantage over Tampa headed into a potential second round matchup against a Lightning team that’s fared well against the B’s in the past.
All of it gives this week the most exciting, playoff-intensity feel that the Bruins have experienced since coming back from the NHL All-Star break.
So bring on the Tampa Bay Lightning already!
"It’s always exciting for us when you line up against those guys,” said Torey Krug. “They’ve been so good for so long. Obviously they’re on their heels, but they're a potential team you [might] face down the road, so it's an exciting match-up and I think both teams are looking forward to it. It should have a playoff-type feel to it.
“I didn’t know that we were playing them twice [in a week], but that’s probably exactly what it comes down to. The head-to-head matchups this time of year have the opportunity to push a team down or pull a team up. It’s an opportunity for us. We’ll start with tomorrow and then see how it goes from there.”
Given the Lightning’s place in the standings and their current state with no Stamkos, anything less than a sweep in their favor doesn’t feel like it’s going to be enough to catch up to a Bruins team that’s got their mojo fully restored.
Still, it’s going to be fascinating to see how it plays out with two teams that would enter any playoff series as evenly-matched adversaries that could end up finishing No. 1 and No. 2 in the NHL this season when it’s all said and done.