The Bruins and Lightning will meet twice this week, beginning with Tuesday night’s faceoff in Tampa, and the biggest mystery at the moment is how the Bolts will look now that surgery has sidelined franchise center Steven Stamkos for the next 6-8 weeks.
Not a whole lot of drama, or sympathy, in that for Bruins fans. Their favorite Black-and-Gold stick carriers own the NHL’s best record (41-13-12), and will spend the next 4-5 weeks focused most on keeping their game trimmed and tuned for the start of the playoffs early next month.
Which is not to say Tampa is a triviality, but these two games (return match Saturday night at the Garden) won’t be what they might have been had the Bruins not executed at a blistering 12-3-0 rate since the bye break and opened up a 7-point lead on the Bolts.
“They’re big games, points-wise, no question,” said pot-stirrer in chief, Brad Marchand, “but it’s not the be-all or end-all. We’re going to go in and play like it’s any other game, focus on doing the job, deal with each game as it comes.”
The Bolts, second to the Bruins in the Atlantic Division and third in the overall standings, beefed up a little more around the trade deadline by adding Barclay Goodrow, a widebodied right winger from San Jose. They took a bigger-is-better approach in the offseason, too, when they signed hefty left winger Pat Maroon, last seen high-stepping the Cup around the Garden last June with the Blues.
By Bruce Cassidy’s eye, the Bolts wanted more size, in part to deal with what he termed “the Columbus effect.” After dominating the league throughout the 2018-19 regular season, the Bolts were bumrushed out of the postseason in four straight games, unable to match the physical presence and net drive of the determined Blue Jackets.
“I think that’s what they want eventually, anyway,” said Cassidy, crediting the Bolts for their accent on speed and skill through the years. “Whether it’s 6-foot-2 and 30 pounds heavier, they want guys competitive on the puck. They do push the pace and they have their speed — guys like [Mathieu] Joseph and [Mitchell] Stephens. As an organization, they don’t want to get away from that, and they’ve added a couple of bigger pieces.”
Meanwhile, 66 games into the season, the Bruins are still figuring out the exact composition of their attack, albeit amid a discussion framed by the fact their top line is packing 103 goals and 228 points. The same trio — Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Marchand — finished with 106 goals and 260 points last regular season.
It’s the new second line, a product of the trade deadline, that remains very much a work in progress, David Krejci centering newcomers Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase. Also in question: Will it be Anders Bjork, Karlson Kuhlman, or a mystery guest — sign in, please! — who will fill the right wing spot on a line with Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk, a post-trade deadline refugee from the second line?
The new No. 2 trio has only been together for two games, their execution and output underwhelming. Ritchie and Kase were often linemates in their days with Anaheim, and now the challenge is Krejci’s to integrate a couple of new wingers into a line that ultimately will bear the burden of delivering secondary scoring — often so crucial to postseason success.
“I have no complaints with them,” said Cassidy. “I think they’re going to be a good line, it’s just going to take a little time for them to figure out . . . well, maybe it’ll take Krejci a little more time because he’s the new guy, I guess, on that line.”
Tuukka Rask (24-7-6), who submitted his fourth shutout this season with Saturday’s win over the Islanders, is inked in to make both starts against Tampa. Jaroslav Halak, now 17-6-6 after six straight wins, will face the Panthers Thursday night in Sunrise.
If the Bruins were to win both against Tampa, it’s possible they’d enter next week with a double-digit lead on the Bolts with only 12 games to play.
They have put themselves in this position because of a powerhouse first line, reasonable secondary scoring, team-smart defense, and Rask-Halak goaltending that as of Tuesday had the league’s best goals-against average (2.42).
“Every game is kind of a measuring stick,” noted Marchand as the Bruins prepared to board their flight south, “but there’s so much parity in the league now, anyone can beat anyone on any given night . . . it’s an opportunity for us to measure up against them, but we know they’re a helluva team and we’re a good team. We don’t need one game to decide that.
“A big game. They’ll play hard. We’ll play hard. And we’ll move on.”