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Pregame Notebook: Another Big Divisional Matchup Looming for Bruins vs. Lightning

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — With just under 20 games remaining on the docket in 2015-16, the Bruins have their work cut out for them.

And their work begins with a divisional battle against Tampa Bay on Sunday at TD Garden — yet another game with huge postseason implications.

“This is a big division game,” said forward David Krejci following Sunday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “There’s lots of points in play, so games likes this, we have to win if we want to stay in the top three.”

As it stands, the Bruins and Lightning are tied points-wise at 74. Technically, the Lightning are in second place in the Atlantic because they have a game in hand on the Bruins, but with two points tonight, either team will gain some separation.

There isn’t much time left in the regular season, and thus, it’s games like this that really matter — for both sides.

“Any time you get to this time of the year and you play meaningful games, it’s exciting, and this looks like a team we’re going to be battling down the stretch for a playoff spot,” said Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos. “These guys have been playing well as of late, too, and we know we have a challenge ahead of us.

“The great thing about this game is that really, the first 60 games don’t mean much now. They set you up for a chance to play well down the stretch. [The Bruins] had a big win last game against Pitt, I believe, so they’ve got to be feeling good about their game, and hopefully we’ll rise to the occasion tonight.”

The Bruins will indeed enter Sunday’s matchup feeling good about their game. They played one of their best home games in recent memory on Wednesday against Pittsburgh, exploding in the third period to seal a 5-1 win over a team breathing down their neck in the standings.

Two nights later, they did the same thing against Carolina, pulling away in the third for an eventual 4-1 victory.

“We had some good tests — Pittsburgh games at home a couple games ago, we had a really strong forecheck, played full 60 minutes,” Krejci said. “In Carolina, we obviously had a decent game, but we felt like our forecheck kind of got away from us, so we have to get back to it. Every time we have a good forecheck, we have a good game, so that’s the key for our game.”

Particularly against a Lightning team that is known for its potent attack up front.

“If you dump the puck in and you don’t have a good forecheck, then they just come out with speed,” Krejci said. “So the main thing is to kind of make them stop behind the net, make the forwards stop, make sure they are all in front of you, you see them. Forecheck is a big part of our game.”

Technically, this game isn’t a must-win. There are 18 games remaining after this one. But these are the games each of these teams must be sure to win in order to gain some separation in the ever-congested Eastern Conference standings.

“I think that these are fun games to play, personally,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “I like these games that both teams are going to be motivated to play, and it should turn out tot be an exciting game. So I like those.

“We all know that every win is important, and we kind of put our emphasis on that, but this one here is a little bit more special because of the implications of what’s going to end up here at the end of this night. And I think we’re excited to play those types of games, and we need to be ready to play here at 6:30.”

Lightning on the Upswing

Tonight’s matchup marks the third of four matchups between these two teams, and finally, each of them seems to be coming into its own.

Back on Oct. 12 — the first time these two teams met — the Bruins were playing in their third game of the season and would ultimately drop their third straight at home in a 6-3 defeat at the hands of Tampa. A couple of weeks later, as Boston paid its first visit of the season to Amalie Arena, they flipped the script and handed the Lightning 3-1 defeat in the second leg of a tough back-to-back.

Now, finally, both teams are playing to their potential, including the Lightning, who enter Sunday’s game in the midst of a five-game winning streak.

“We’re playing well,” said Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper. “I think we’re earning these wins, from the goaltending all the way through. So hopefully we keep this up here for the last 20 because the East is so tight, and here we go — got to play another opponent tonight that we’re neck and neck with each other.

“We haven’t seen these guys in a while, so I’m actually excited for this game to see where both our teams are at, and it’s going to be a really good challenge for us.”

This game is unique in that it’s a bit of a measuring stick for each side. Each of these teams will have a better idea of how it stacks up against the rest of the Eastern Conference based on Sunday’s result.

“Obviously, their offense is pretty deadly, so we’ve got to play some tight D and hopefully give up some less shots than the last couple of games,” said Bruins forward Matt Beleskey. “But if we keep playing our game, we’ll be in a good spot.”

Connolly, One Year Later

Almost exactly one year ago, Bruins forward Brett Connolly arrived in Boston via Tampa Bay in a deadline day trade.

And one year later, he seems to be finding his footing in Boston.

“[It was the] first time I was traded, so I was a little emotional,” Connolly said on Sunday. “I think you’ve got to go through it once to really be ready for a trade. It’s something different, and obviously at the time, it’s a new thing, but it’s been for the best. I got traded to a great organization, a great team full of good leaders, guys who have won before. I’ve learned so much from the guys in this locker room.”

This season has undoubtedly been up and down for Connolly, who enters Sunday’s game with eight goals and 15 assists in 59 games. Lately, though, he’s found his footing playing consistently on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

“I’ve been with Bergy and Marchy for most of the year — it’s been a fun challenge to obviously play with those two and be able to play and be relied on to play against those teams’ top lines,” Connolly said. “It’s been a lot of fun this year. Got put in good situations.”

With Marchand and Bergeron on their way to posting career years, Connolly is happy to do the little things to help them get there, even if he goes a bit unheralded for it.

“Obviously, the way Marchy’s playing right now — the way the pucks are going in for him — try to get him the puck as much as possible and get to the net, play physical and create a little bit of space for those guys,” Connolly said. “I think for me, when I’m doing that, my game’s better; I feel I can create a little bit more space for those two guys. They’re obviously two great players, guys that play such big minutes. When I can take the load off of those guys and play a little bit of a harder game when I’m on the ice with them, then I’m going to do that.”

Cooper, who coached Connolly briefly in Tampa, is impressed with what his former winger has been able to do with Boston. As he said, no team lets you play on the top line if you don’t earn it, so clearly, Connolly has done something right.

“It’s been no secret — I’m a Brett Connolly fan, not for the mere fact that we’re from the same town,” Cooper joked. “But I just like what he’s done. He’s had some pretty serious injuries when he played junior, and he’s kind of found his way from being kind of tabbed as just a scorer to now he’s kind of refined his game. We don’t get to see him as often anymore, but you see him out there with two pretty darn good players — that means he’s doing something right. You don’t hand that ice time out for charity.

“So I’m really happy for how he has built himself into a regular NHLer, and just because it wasn’t quite the fit for us, it doesn’t mean he can’t be a fit somewhere else. You cheer for guys like that because he’s worked hard.”

In the last year, Connolly has gained some perspective on the trade that brought him to his new home. He’s gotten past the emotional side of it. He’s moved on, and he feels comfortable where he is now.

“It’s been a year now; for me, I’ve moved on completely, and so have they,” Connolly said. “I’m still close with a lot of the guys on the team, guys who I’ll be close with for a long time, and it should be fun. I’ve played them a couple times already, so it shouldn’t be too different from those games. Just looking to take it like any other game.

“Obviously, with the standings so tight, we’re tied, it’s a big game, it’s going to be fun. Two good teams are going to go at it tonight.”

Eriksson Addresses Trade Talk

With Monday’s Trade Deadline fast approaching, Bruins forward Loui Eriksson continues to find his name tossed around in trade projections and speculations.

That has been the case for him for the last month or so, and the whole time, he has maintained the same mentality, night in and night out: control what he can control, and ignore the chatter.

“Right now, we’ll see what’s going to happen, and all I can do is just play, and just help the team, like I’ve been saying the last couple times I’ve talked to you guys,” Eriksson said following Sunday’s morning skate. “There’s obviously a lot of things going around, and coming back to it again, I’m just trying to play the game, and have fun with the team, and try to win games right now.”

In years past, Julien admitted that the deadline has presented a bit of a distraction in the locker room. Not this year, he said. This year, his guys are focused on the task at hand.

“In the past, I can honestly say there were guys wondering if they were going to be here at the Trade Deadline,” Julien said. “Right now, I think we have a pretty good focus on just playing the game, and so it’s been good that way. So as far as a distraction, I’m not sure it is right now, and if it is, it’s not showing.”

Talbot Clears Waivers

On Saturday, the Bruins announced that they had placed forward Max Talbot on waivers. At noon on Sunday, Talbot cleared waivers.

In 36 games with Boston this season, Talbot has posted two goals and four assists for six points. Since coming over from Colorado on Trade Deadline Day last season, the 5’11”, 186-pound forward has tallied two goals and seven assists for nine points in 54 games.

Projected Lineup Sunday vs. Tampa Bay

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronBrett Connolly

Loui ErikssonDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak

Matt BeleskeyRyan SpoonerJimmy Hayes

Zac RinaldoJoonas KemppainenLandon Ferraro

Zdeno CharaAdam McQuaid

Torey KrugDennis Seidenberg

Joe MorrowKevan Miller

Starting Goaltender: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Jonas Gustavsson

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