BOSTON - In the end, every regular-season game means the same in the standings.
But to anyone that follows the National Hockey League, it's clear that some matchups across an 82-game schedule mean a whole lot more than just 2 points. That is, without a doubt, the case when it comes to the two teams duking it out at the top of the Atlantic Division.
For the majority of the last three seasons, the Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have battled for league supremacy as the NHL's best two teams (Tampa, 326 points; Boston, 305 points) since the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
That arms race has not changed, as the teams head into the final month of the regular season as the top two clubs (Boston, 94 points; Tampa, 87 points) in the Eastern Conference, setting up what should be a spirited battle on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
"It's always a fun one for us…they have been so good for so long and they are on our heels, a potential team that you face down the road," Torey Krug said following Monday's practice at Warrior Ice Arena. "Exciting matchup. I think both teams are looking forward to it, should have a playoff-type feel to it."
Video: Krug talks about Lightning ahead of road trip
While the Bruins have opened up a 7-point lead over the Lightning for the No. 1 spot in the Atlantic Division, Tampa has, arguably, been the league's best team since Jan. 1, posting a 20-6-1 record (41 points) during that span. Boston is second at 17-6-2 (36 points).
The Lightning - who at one point trailed the Bruins by 15 points for the division lead - surged to within a point of the Bruins as recently as February 18. But a four-game losing skid, coupled with Boston's strong 12-3-0 run since the bye week in late January, has opened up some breathing room for the Black & Gold.
"We've all got our finalized rosters, no more trades being done. These are our teams and we will see how we match up," said Charlie Coyle, who turned 28 on Monday. "They are a great team. We have to expect a really good game from them and return the favor…we want to be feeling good, we want to have a good game against these guys and see where we are.
"It's another 2 points, big 2 points up for grabs against a team that is right behind us so we want to take advantage of that."
When the teams meet on Tuesday, it will mark the third of four matchups this season and the first since Dec. 12 - a 3-2 Lightning victory. Tampa also took the first meeting on Oct. 17, a 4-3 shootout win at TD Garden. The teams will close out the regular-season series on Saturday night in Boston.
"Head-to-head matchups this time of year have the ability to push a team down or bring a team up," Krug said of playing Tampa twice in a five-day span. "It's an opportunity for us and it will start [on Tuesday] and see where it goes from there."
Video: Cassidy talks about lines, Tampa Bay after practice
The teams look a tad different than the last time they clashed before Christmas, as both sides added new bodies ahead of the trade deadline. The Bruins switched out David Backes and Danton Heinen for Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase, while the Lightning added some brawn with forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and defenseman Zach Bogosian.
"Goodrow's a big body, obviously [Pat] Maroon [who signed in the offseason] is as well…maybe they have some more speed down the bottom [of the lineup]," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "I think that's what they want eventually anyway, whether it's 6-foot-2 and 30 pounds heavier, they want competitive on the puck. They do push the pace and they have their speed…they've added a couple bigger pieces. That could be the [effect of losing to Columbus] from last year."
The Lightning, however, are without captain Steven Stamkos, who is sidelined for the next six to eight weeks after having surgery on Monday to repair a core muscle injury.
"Just a great two-way player and, obviously, he's their leader, so any time you lose your leader it hurts the locker room and the team," said Krug. "I'm sure they have their guys pulling their weight and stepping up and like any other team it's another loss for the lineup, but they are going to try and overcome it."
This season, every month has been a good one for David Pastrnak. But in February, the winger, once again, took it to another level, notching 10 goals and 19 points in 14 games. For his efforts, Pastrnak was named the NHL's Third Star of the Month.
The 23-year-old leads the league with 47 goals and is second to Edmonton's Leon Drasaitl (102 points) in scoring with 91 points.
"He's taken a big leap in his development," said Brad Marchand. "Consistency is one thing that can separate a lot of guys in this league. You see guys that will score 10 goals in 10 games, but to be able to do it all the way through the season and continue his level of play - even when he has a bad stretch, he's still scoring or making plays…he's really learning to become a complete player all the way around."
Video: Marchand talks about Pastrnak, Lightning
Wait, There's More
- Chris Wagner practiced in full on Monday morning and traveled with the team to the Sunshine State. The winger missed Saturday's game on Long Island with an upper-body injury suffered during the second period of Thursday night's win over the Dallas Stars.
- Tuukka Rask will start against the Lightning on Tuesday night in Tampa and Saturday night in Boston. Jaroslav Halak will get the nod on Thursday in Florida.
Monday's Practice Lineup
Brad Marchand - Patrice Bergeron - David Pastrnak
Nick Ritchie - David Krejci - Ondrej Kase
Jake DeBrusk/Anders Bjork - Charlie Coyle - Karson Kuhlman
Sean Kuraly - Par Lindholm - Chris Wagner
Anton Blidh - Joakim Nordstrom
Zdeno Chara - Charlie McAvoy
Torey Krug - Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzelcyk - Jeremy Lauzon
John Moore - Connor Clifton