Lightning and Panthers Closing Division Gap on the Bruins

Six weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were 15 points behind the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division standings. As the teams head into the All-Star weekend, things have changed and fast.

What once seemed like a large enough lead that Tampa Bay was fighting for a wild card berth, the Lightning are now eight points behind the Bruins and in second place in the division. Right on the Lightning’s heels are the Florida Panthers, one point behind and in third place after a six-game winning streak heading into the break.

Lightning and Panthers Get Hot

In early December, Tampa Bay had a 14-10-3 record. It was not the start they had hoped for one year after winning the Presidents’ Trophy with a whopping 62 wins and 128 points. They were preseason favorites to defend top spot in the Atlantic, but a poor start had them scuffling in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.

Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning
Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the reasons for their recent surge is their ability to put the puck in the net at a more consistent rate. One week after scoring nine goals in a home-ice win over the Vancouver Canucks, they scored seven in a victory over the Winnipeg Jets on the road. Nikita Kucherov leads the team in goals with 22, while sixth-year forward Alex Killorn has been a pleasant surprise with a career-high 20 goals in just 46 games.

Tampa Bay Lightning Alex Killorn
Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point each have 18 goals, but the biggest improvement has been in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been as hot as any goalie in the league. He is 14-2-1 in his last 17 games, including a 10-game winning streak. He last loss on Dec. 14 to the Washington Capitals. Vasilevskiy’s efforts have not gone unnoticed as he was recently added to the Atlantic Division All-Star team, replacing Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask.

On Jan. 9, the Panthers were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and one point out of a playoff berth. They ranked fourth in the division, three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. A 5-2 win over the Canucks started Florida on a six-game winning streak to pull into a playoff spot.

When things are going well, things are going well. During their winning streak, the Panthers have scored 30 goals. On Jan. 20, in a 5-4 win against the Wild in Minnesota, former Bruin Noel Acciari scored with six seconds left to break the tie.

Noel Acciari Florida Panthers
Florida Panthers right wing Noel Acciari (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)

One night later, in coach Joel Quenneville’s return to Chicago to face the Blackhawks, another former Bruin, Frank Vatrano recorded a hat trick in a 4-3 victory. If Florida can keep its streak going after the break, it will make things interesting for both the Lightning and Bruins.

Bruins Struggle

In the time that the Lightning and the Panthers have surged, the Bruins have struggled. It’s not for a lack of effort, but what has happened to them over the last six weeks is a cause for concern.

Twice in the last two weeks Boston has blown a pair of three-goals leads against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This season, they’ve lost four games in which they had a three-goal lead or more for the first time in 26 years. Add in two shootout losses and those valuable lost points could hurt them at the end of the season.

Scoring from their first line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand has not been an issue this season. Secondary scoring has been a problem, especially from the second line, but their power play has been consistent. Boston ranks third on the power play in the league and that has carried them to some wins, with a goal in 14 of their last 18 games.

Boston Bruins David Pastrnak NHL Winter Classic
Boston Bruins David Pastrnak celebrates after scoring his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first period of the NHL Winter Classic. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The Bruins have also had to deal with injuries. Their defensive unit has been hit hard, as well as losing Rask to a concussion. All of this adds up to a team feeling the heat, especially from the Lightning and the Panthers.

Remainder of the Season

How will the final 31 games play out? Who knows, but after the Bruins’ 10-day break, they will return to the ice on Jan. 31 against the Jets in Winnipeg. The Lightning have three games in hand on Boston and Florida has two over the final two-plus months.

Tampa Bay is simply too talented to go away, as evidenced by their 15-5-1 surge before the break. A six-game winning streak by an upstart Panthers team has added to the drama. While the Bruins have sputtered along at 8-6-6, they still have a lot of work to do to keep the Lightning and Panthers at bay and win the Atlantic Division. Whatever happens, it should be a fun remainder of the regular season.