Every sports franchise has that one opponent that they just can not master, no matter how hard they try. Even when they are playing their best, whenever that opponent rolls into town, they bring forth a beatdown that makes you question just how good you really are.
This has been the Tampa Bay Lightning’s relationship to the Boston Bruins ever since the 2011 Eastern Conference Final. After holding more than their own in that seven-game slugfest of a series, the Bruins have dominated the regular season against the Bolts, winning 20 of the last 28 games. Whenever it seemed like everything was going right for Tampa Bay, they would have a game against Boston that would remind them that they were not the kings of the NHL.
Six Years of Punishment from Bruins
After a 6-2 shellacking by the Bruins in Game 1, it looked like Tampa Bay’s regular-season history against the B’s would repeat itself in the playoffs. While they were able to push the tempo early on, the Lightning couldn’t keep their momentum throughout the game, eventually succumbing to Boston’s tough play.
Since 2011, this is how most games against the Bruins went for the Lightning. They would start strong in the first period until Boston pushed back, forcing the Lightning to make bad plays while giving up breakaway chances. By the third period, Tampa Bay would be so beat down by the Bruins’ overbearing play that they would often be found scrambling in front of their own net and giving up easy goals.
Time and time again this pattern repeated. Whether the game took place in 2012, 2016 or 2018, the Bolts would start strong before Boston ultimately shut them down. Players and coaches changed on both sides, yet the results were almost always the same for Tampa Bay.
Lightning Speed and Power Broke Bruins
As a team that plays a chip and chase game, the Lightning rely on their speed to break through the opponent’s blue line and create scoring opportunities. With Boston able to neutralize this speed with stout play at the blue line, it forced the Bolts to try and make plays instead of playing their game.
What made the difference for the Lightning in this series was their use of both speed and strength to break through Bostons’ defense. As a unit, Tampa Bay had the perfect combination of forwards up and down their line-up to put everyone but Boston’s top line on an exploitable mismatch.
So, by utilizing the size and grit provided by fourth line grinders like Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette, they could wear down Boston by keeping them pinned in their own zone. Then, they released their speed and skill stars like Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat to stretch the ice out and score some important goals.
This play allowed Tampa Bay to control the flow of games while at even strength, forcing Boston to rely on their special teams to score. In fact, the Lightning kept the Bruins from scoring an even-strength goal for close to 185 minutes, or three straight games. With near-perfect even-strength play like this, there was little chance of a comeback for Boston once they were down in a game.
Lightning Climbed Mountain by Beating Boston
Even though they were the top seed in the East heading into the playoffs, it felt like the Lightning were the second best team in their division due to their recent history with the Bruins. However, after a dominant 4-1 series victory against their greatest Atlantic Division rivals, the Lighting broke through a long-standing barrier that has been looming over the franchise for years. By defeating Boston, Tampa Bay proved to both themselves and the world that history takes a back seat when you reach the postseason.
With the Eastern Conference Final now in sight, the Lightning will now need to prepare to face off against their former Southeastern Division rivals, the Washington Capitals. When they last met in the playoffs, Tampa Bay swept them in the second round in route to their meeting with the Bruins in the 2011 Eastern Conference Final.
Unlike when they played Boston, history favors the Lightning in their next series. As they well know, though, that means nothing when you get on the ice. If they want to reach the Stanley Cup Final, they will have to play as dominant of a game as they did against the Bruins, or this team will become nothing more than a footnote on the Capitals’ journey to re-write decades of postseason history.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.