Tampa Bay Lightning

Stunning upset of Lightning leaves wide open East for Bruins or Leafs

Stunning upset of Lightning leaves wide open East for Bruins or Leafs

TORONTO – The Maple Leafs and Bruins are locked in their own first-round playoff series right now, so that’s going to take full and top priority.

Still, there also has to be some private acknowledgment that the door is wide open to advance far into the Eastern Conference playoff bracket now that the top dog Tampa Bay Lightning have been eliminated in a stunning playoff upset.

The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning were the first team eliminated after the Columbus Blue Jackets completed the sweep with a 7-3 victory at Nationwide Arena in Columbus on Tuesday night. It's also the first playoff series win for the Blue Jackets in their 19-year franchise history. 

The perennial powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins followed suit Tuesday, getting swept in their first-round series by the New York Islanders and further opening up the Eastern Conference bracket. 

Clearly, the Blue Jackets would be a tough opponent in the second round for whichever team advances from the Bruins-Maple Leafs series, but they seem like a far beatable opponent matchup-wise and one who might have unloaded their tank in the emotional sweep of No. 1 seed Tampa Bay.

Certainly, the Bruins know they’ve got their own concerns at this point down 2-1 in their best-of-seven series with a Game 4 Wednesday night in Toronto, but they’re also confident it’s going to bring the best out of them.

“We’ve found ways pretty much all year, so it comes down to that,” said Patrice Bergeron. “You’ll face adversity. It’s just the way it is. That’s what hockey is all about. You have to thrive on it. You try to make the adjustments that are necessary, and I talk about that as a team.”

There’s also plenty more for the Bruins to play for now knowing they could enjoy home-ice advantage throughout the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Not only that, but there’s a legitimate pathway to the Eastern Conference Final, if not the Cup Final, right there if the Black and Gold can find a way to get past a newly battle-hardened Leafs giving them a challenge right now.

It would be a real shame if the B’s fumble away a golden opportunity after wondering all season how they’d managed to push past a juggernaut Lightning team that’s now shockingly one-and-done this postseason. Now, the Bolts are gone, and the coast feels much more clear for the Bruins or the Maple Leafs depending on which team advances in the Atlantic Division dogfight now playing out between the two rivals.  

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Blue Jackets and Lightning are paving an easier road for Bruins

Blue Jackets and Lightning are paving an easier road for Bruins

The biggest "yeah, but" of a really good Bruins season just might disappear. 

I say "just might" because even though I'm as stunned as everybody else that the Lightning are on the verge of being swept in the first round, I still give them roughly a 50-50 shot at coming back and eliminating the Blue Jackets.  

At any rate, this is good for the Bruins. They either won't have to play the Lightning in the second round or they'll have to play a Lightning team that escaped a seven-game series by the skin of its teeth. (No, I'm still not considering the third option where the freaking Maple Leafs play in the second round.) 

Tampa has had a nightmare of a first round. It began with a blown three-goal lead in Game 1 and most recently saw the Lightning's best forward suspended and their best defenseman injured for a Game 3 they dropped for their first three-game losing streak of the season. 

Mocking the Presidents' Trophy is foolish; roughly 25 percent of its winners have gone on to win the Cup, which is really not bad considering the variance of different seeds going all the way. Still, there is something to be said for the Lightning's problem-free regular season doing them no favors right now. 

Nobody has any idea what kind of mental makeup permeates Jon Cooper's room. Being a historically good team, the 62-win Bolts really never played an important game this season, let alone a must-win. They've got to be just as shocked by their three-game hole as the rest of us. We don't have to fix it, though. They do, and they're hardly road-tested for such an unexpected task. 

Say they can't pull it off. The Bruins will not only have an easier opponent than expected, they'll have home ice.

But the Blue Jackets, whom the B's beat in two of three meetings this season, are better than Toronto. The games will still get tougher from Round 1 to Round 2. Where the Leafs are speed, skill and nothing else, Columbus is well-rounded. They've got two studs on defense playing in front of a Vezina winner. They also added Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel up front after deciding to keep UFA-to-be Artemi Panarin at the trade deadline. 

They wouldn't sneak up on Boston the way they have with Tampa, however. The entire league is on notice now. Nobody was expected to beat Tampa. If anyone does, they won't be taken lightly by their next opponent. All things considered, Boston would rightfully be favored in that series. 

If Cooper's squad gets past Columbus, it will be because they got their act together. Tampa has scored two goals since the first intermission of Game 1. Brayden Point (92 regular-season points), Steven Stamkos (98) and Nikita Kucherov (128!) all have zero points in the series (Kucherov was suspended for Game 3). 

When healthy and right, Tampa is unstoppable. Since the start of the Blue Jackets' Game 1 comeback, however, they've stalled offensively. Furthermore, Victor Hedman is an injury question (he missed Game 3) and Andrei Vasilevskiy has been subpar in goal. 

Maybe Tampa won't look this shaky again the rest of the playoffs. The Kings were down three games to none in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs against the Sharks and still went on to win the Cup. And even if Tampa does come back to win four straight, it would feel more like an exhausting exercise in avoiding embarrassment than a confidence-building triumph.  

Right now Tampa is vulnerable, which isn't something anyone could say about them all season. Whatever happens, Bruins observers should adjust their second-round expectations from facing a buzzsaw to playing either a more tired Tampa team or a different team altogether.

That's a hell of a lot better than anyone could have anticipated.

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Talking Points from the Bruins 6-3 loss to the Lightning

Talking Points from the Bruins 6-3 loss to the Lightning

Here are Joe Haggerty's Talking Points from the Bruins' 6-3 loss to the Lightning in their regular season finale. 

GOLD STAR: Nikita Kucherov scored the game-winning goal on a backhanded strike in the third period, and finished with two points in the win for the Lightning. Not only that but those two points also pushed Kucherov to 128 points for the season, a total that eclipsed Alexander Mogilny for the most points in an NHL season by a Russian-born player. It wasn’t a dominant game by Kucherov by any means and he seemed to genuinely be getting annoyed by Connor Clifton giving him the business in the latter moments of the second period. But Kucherov decided he wanted to step up and win the game in the third, and he turned it on in the final 20 minutes as a reminder of just how good he’s going to be should the two teams meet up in the postseason.

BLACK EYE: They weren’t all the fault of Tuukka Rask, but he allowed five goals on 21 shots before he exited the game for an empty net situation in the third period. The game-winning backhanded shot from Nikita Kucherov was one that Rask would probably have liked to stop, but the real difficult one was the 40-plus footer from inside the blue line that Braydon Coburn beat him with to the glove hand. At that point it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to be Rask’s night and it was just as clear afterward that Rask wasn’t super into playing in Game No. 82 with nothing on the line ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs next week. Either way it’s not really a very big confidence-booster headed into the postseason for the No. 1 goalie.  

TURNING POINT: The Bruins looked good after the first period when they opened up a 2-0 lead and looked pretty solid out of the gate. But it all started falling apart in the second period when the Lightning outshot the Bruins by an 11-6 margin and scored three unanswered goals to really seize control of the game. Then they allowed a goal to Nikita Kucherov just 53 seconds into the third period and that really killed any chances of the Bruins mounting something of a comeback, or at least giving it a go with a lineup that was missing some of their best with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo among others not playing. It all fell apart quickly for the Black and Gold, and that seems to happen quite a bit against Tampa.

HONORABLE MENTION: A pretty good game from Danton Heinen, who scored his 11th goal of the season and played like he wants to be a difference-maker in the postseason. The goal-scoring play was Heinen potting the score from the high slot to the corner with traffic in front of the net, but also credit to Steve Kampfer for stepping up into the play and disrupting Ryan Callahan at the blue line to keep the puck in the offensive zone as well. Heinen finished with the goal, three shots on net and three hits in 16:38 of ice time, and was a player that you noticed at certain spots as he’s fine-tuning his game for the B’s postseason run. That’s a good sign for him.

BY THE NUMBERS: 20 – the number of goals scored for David Krejci after his first period strike, which gives him the fourth 20-goal season of his career and marks the first time since 2013-14 that the Bruins had five 20-goal scorers on their roster.  

QUOTE TO NOTE: “It is an area of concern because Toronto’s going to have players that can bury it [shorthanded], so we’re going to have to tighten up in that area. But it’s not as simple as saying hey guys let’s [tighten up]...you just have to be harder on the pucks. Understand which teams push hard to score goals when you’re on the power play.” –Bruce Cassidy, on concerns about it after giving an NHL leading 15th shorthanded goal in the loss to Tampa Bay. 

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