The Boston Bruins have been a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in each of the past three seasons, including the ongoing 2019-20 campaign, but in two of those playoff runs the Tampa Bay Lightning proved to be a roadblock that the B's couldn't overcome.
The Lightning beat the Bruins in a five-game second round playoff series in both 2018 and 2020. This year's series, just like in 2018, began with a B's win in Game 1 followed by four consecutive Lightning victories.
Tampa Bay outscored Boston 17-7 over the final four games of the 2020 series, including an emphatic 7-1 win in Game 3. Overall, the Lightning were better than the Bruins in just about every facet of the game.
It was a bitterly disappointing way for the Bruins' season -- one that had so much promise -- to end. If the Bruins decide to run it back for one more run at the Stanley Cup with their current core, they'll need to find a way to beat the Lightning.
Tampa Bay has a 17-7 record, including the playoffs, against Boston since the start of the 2017-18 season. And with a fairly young roster full of top-tier players at every position, the Lightning are poised to be a roadblock standing in the Bruins' way for a while.
"I think they made some changes, it just kind of swung a little bit," Bruins forward Brad Marchand said Thursday. "We obviously had their number for a few years there and they made some changes I think to combat our physicality. They've always had skill, 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. 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. And 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.
"It's unfortunate because we have, and 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, and 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. I mean there's two overtime games if we get those, I mean, we're up 3-1 there, so it's a game of inches and unfortunately, they didn't go our way this year."
There are a few areas the Bruins need to improve in if they're going to beat the Lightning, and one of them is 5-on-5 scoring.
Tampa Bay outscored Boston 13-3 at 5-on-5 in the second round. The B's have a great power play that ranked second in goals scored during the regular season, but it's not enough to overcome the team's shortcomings at even strength, especially against the top teams.
Secondary scoring was a problem for the Bruins in both of their recent playoff exits to the Lightning, and without changes to the forward group, that issue is likely to continue.