Coming out of the All-Star break five weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were in the midst of an 11-game winning streak. A 15-point lead in the Atlantic Division standings after the first half of the year all of a sudden didn’t seem so secure for the Boston Bruins.
Tampa Bay cut the deficit down to as close as three points on the Bruins, but a recent surge in play for Boston has opened back up a seven-point lead on the Lightning. With one month left in the regular season, the Bruins can put a stranglehold on the Atlantic Division when they play their final two games of regular-season in a five-day span against the Lightning beginning Tuesday night.
Tampa Bay Struggles and Loses Stamkos
A recent four-game losing streak by the Lightning (broken with a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames Feb. 29) has helped to give the Bruins a cushion. Tampa Bay also got some bad news when they recently found out that team captain Steven Stamkos will be lost for six to eight weeks after he underwent core-muscle surgery.
Stamkos has 29 goals and 37 assists this season. The injury could not have come at a worse time for Tampa Bay with 16 games left in the regular season and two this week against Boston. If the Lightning are going to make a move on the Bruins and win the division, they almost need to sweep the two games in regulation this week. Losing Stamkos will not make the challenge easy.
On Feb. 16, the Lightning acquired Blake Coleman from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for prospect Nolan Foote and a first-round draft pick. In five games in a Tampa Bay uniform, he has yet to light the lamp and has one assist. If the Lightning don’t start getting production in the absence of Stamkos, the Bruins will be able to lengthen their division lead.
Bruins Hitting Their Stride Ahead of Tampa Bay
Boston has won 13 out of their last 16 games to help their lead grow not only in the division but the conference as well. In February, the Black and Gold went 11-3, which included winning two out of three games in Western Canada against the Edmonton Oilers and the Flames.
While the Lightning have struggled against their recent schedule, so have the teams in the Metropolitan Division as well. The Washington Capitals, who once led the Eastern Conference in points, are eight points behind the Bruins and looking to hold off the fast-charging Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins in their own division race.
Looking over to the Western Conference, the Bruins are six points ahead of the St. Louis Blues in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. Finishing with the most points doesn’t mean you will have playoff success, though. Last season, the Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy, only to be swept in the opening round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Boston ended up with the home-ice advantage in last season’s Stanley Cup Final, but that didn’t prove to be an advantage as the Blues won Game 7 on the road.
Bruins Spreading Around Scoring and Add Pieces
In their last two wins, the Bruins are getting goals from more than just their first line. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand each had a goal in their 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars Feb. 27 and a 4-0 shutout of the New York Islanders Feb. 29.
Boston also got goals from Charlie Coyle and newcomer Nick Ritchie in their win over the Stars. Defensemen Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy each scored with Pastrnak and Marchand in their win on Long Island against the Islanders.
General manager Don Sweeney acquired two players from the Anaheim Ducks at the trade deadline to deepen their roster. Ondrej Kase and Ritchie joined the Bruins for the stretch run of the regular season and playoffs.
If the Bruins are able to take care of business this week against the Lightning and extend their division lead, that could pay off over the final month of the regular season. With the additions of Kase and Ritchie, the Bruins can give some of their vital players a rest prior to the playoffs. Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Pastrnak, Marchand and Coyle could all use some time off before the playoffs begin. Two wins over Tampa Bay in the next five days would allow coach Bruce Cassidy that option.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.