BOSTON - Following their loss to the New York Rangers on Jan. 19, the team's final game before the nine-day bye week, the Bruins had 59 points, the ninth-most in the National Hockey League. At that time, they sat 17 points behind the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.
Since that setback to the Rangers nearly six weeks ago, Boston has not lost in regulation, surging to a 10-0-4 record and third place in the overall league standings with 83 points.
Despite the 14-game points streak, the Bruins have lost ground on the powerhouse Lightning. Tampa has posted a 12-1-2 mark during the same stretch, building their mammoth advantage over the Black & Gold to 19 points.
Nevertheless, when the teams clash on Thursday night at TD Garden, it will pit the best two teams in the Eastern Conference against each other and set the tone for three meetings between the two over the final month-plus of the regular season.
"Obviously two teams that are feeling good about themselves, a team you probably have to go through to win the Stanley Cup," said Torey Krug. "Always great to get out there and see how you measure up to them. It's gonna be a fun environment, looking forward to it."
The Bruins are not, however, looking at this matchup as much as a measuring stick, as they are an opportunity to continue building on their own torrid stretch, which has included winning eight of their last nine games.
"Any time you play one of the top teams in the league it's an opportunity to see how you match up," said Brad Marchand. "At the same time, it's just one game and sometimes one team has a bad game and the other team has a good game. It's nothing like a playoff series, but it's an opportunity to see how you play against each other."
Video: Marchand, DeBrusk and Krug talk Lightning
The two Atlantic Division rivals are not far removed from a postseason atmosphere after meeting in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring. The Bruins battled with the Lightning for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference over the final six weeks of 2017-18, at one time overtaking Tampa, before ultimately falling 1 point short with a loss to Florida in the season's final game.
Tampa finished with 113 points and secured home ice for the second-round showdown with the Bruins, which the Lightning won in five games, before succumbing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals.
With 100 points through 63 games this season, the Lightning appear poised to shatter their mark from a year ago and have emerged as the clear favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup this spring.
"It's incredible the season they're having," said Marchand. "It obviously speaks to their depth, how well they've played all year long. Just the consistency in their group. If you want to compete with them, you have to bring your A-game every night.
"They obviously have some very dangerous players that can take over the game with one play. You can't sleep on them at all. They're an impressive team."
Tampa, winner of 10 straight, entered the day as the league leader in scoring (3.84 goals per game), power play (29.7%), and penalty kill (85.7%). They are fourth in goals allowed (2.49 per game).
"We saw it last year firsthand. We know how good they can be, certainly no weaknesses," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "The fact that they're No. 1 on the power play and penalty kill…goals for, top of the league. That's special. Usually, you have a deficiency somewhere, but it doesn't look like they do, and we're going to find out [on Thursday night]."
Video: Johansson discusses first game as a Bruin
The Lightning also boast the league's leading scorer and Hart Trophy favorite Nikita Kucherov (101 points in 63 games), with Brayden Point (seventh with 79 points) and Steven Stamkos (10th with 75 points) also in the top 10.
"You're playing the best team in the NHL, so just a matter of limiting their options," said Jake DeBrusk. "They've got lots of weapons up front. They're a deep team. They're No. 1 for a reason and we've got to play our best game of the year."
All of that praise does not mean the Bruins don't believe they can compete with the Lightning - now or in the postseason. Despite being without leading scorer David Pastrnak for the last two weeks, (he'll miss at least two more weeks as he recovers from thumb surgery), Boston is playing its best hockey of the season.
"Obviously [it's been] tough to make traction, but at the same time that's what we're looking to do," said DeBrusk. "It's a four-point game and there's lots of meaning. It sends a message for both sides."
The Lightning took the season's first meeting on Dec. 7 with a 3-2 victory on Dec. 7. It was a valiant effort for the Bruins, who were without Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and Kevan Miller. The game also marked Charlie McAvoy's return from a two-month absence with a concussion.
"Different feel, for sure," said Krug. "We're a completely different team…feels like you're playing them for the first time. Looking forward to reigniting that flame."
With three more regular-season matchups left on the schedule, that flame will be burning for quite a while. And maybe well into the spring.
"They're a great team. We know where they stand," said Krug. "They've done a great job this year, but when it comes down to it, it's us vs. them on the ice and nothing matters besides that. I think we're all excited about the matchup."
Wednesday's Practice Notes
- Patrice Bergeron, Noel Acciari, and Kevan Miller also missed practice on Wednesday afternoon. Here is what Cassidy had to say about each player's status for Thursday's tilt with the Bolts:
- Bergeron: "Maintenance day for him. He's fine. He'll be ready to go tomorrow."
- Acciari: "Noel had extensive dental work done this morning [after taking a puck to the mouth against San Jose on Tuesday]. I don't believe there's anything long-term like jaw or anything broken, but there's some teeth that are all over the place, so we'll see how he is in the morning."
- Miller: "It's a minor [upper-body injury] that hasn't become a major thing, but it's stretched maybe out a day or two longer than we thought, so I suspect he'll skate tomorrow. But without being out on the ice I don't know if he'd be ready to go tomorrow. So I wouldn't rule him out, but he's doubtful."
- Peter Cehlarik and Karson Kuhlman were recalled from Providence on an emergency basis. Cassidy said Cehlarik is likely to play against Tampa if Acciari is unable to go.
- Tuukka Rask will start in goal against the Lightning.
Video: Cassidy gives injury updates on Miller, Acciari