If the Tampa Bay Lightning are to catch the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division standings - and in the overall NHL standings - they'll have two chances to make up ground in the next five days.
The Lightning host the Bruins at AMALIE Arena tonight (7:30 p.m. puck drop). Then they travel to Boston for the final game in the four-game regular season series Saturday at TD Garden.
The Bolts are currently seven points back of the Bruins with a game in hand and could pull to within three by winning both of this week's matchups.
"We know where we're at (in the standings)," Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said. "We want to win as many games as possible and try to catch Boston. But it's not our main goal. Our main goal is to get into the playoffs."
Video: Sergachev on Bolts taking it one game at a time
The Lightning would love nothing more than to win the Atlantic Division for a third-consecutive year and hang another banner from the AMALIE Arena rafters.
But it's not essential the Bolts win the division either.
Some would argue it might be more beneficial for the Lightning to finish second in the division. Were that to happen, Tampa Bay would play the third-place team in the Atlantic in the first round of the playoffs, probably Toronto or Florida. If the Lightning were to win the Atlantic, their opponent would likely be whichever team finishes fifth in the Metropolitan Division, which looks like it will grab both wild card spots and has been the stronger division between the two this season.
Toronto currently has 78 points, the same number as the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are in fourth and fifth place, respectively, in the Metro.
It's possible, even probable, the team that comes in fifth in the Metro has more points at the end of the season than the third-place finisher in the Atlantic.
Which makes the two games in the next five days between the Lightning and the Bruins a good test for both teams but not exactly pivotal either. The Bolts just want to get in at this point and give themselves a chance for redemption after the dramatic collapse last postseason.
"I don't think either coach is sitting here and saying this is a make or break game for either of us," Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. "I think it's, we've got to get our games in order, both them and us. It's a good measuring stick to play each other, but I also think it's good to play good teams during this time because it's foreshadowing for what you might potentially see in the spring. Boston has been a class organization for a long time. One game away from being the Stanley Cup champion. It's good to get these games in. We play them twice in five days and kind of get to see where you're at."
The Lightning have won both previous matchups against the Bruins this season. They earned a 4-3 shootout win in Boston Oct. 17 despite giving up three goals on the power play. Steven Stamkos converting in the fourth round for the only player from either side to have a successful shootout attempt.
The Bolts beat Boston 3-2 in the Bruins last visit to AMALIE Arena Dec. 12, Steven Stamkos scoring a pair of goals to pace Tampa Bay.
No matter where the teams are ranked in the standings, the games between the two are physical. They're intense. And they're a lot of fun to watch.
With both teams at the top of the NHL, that intensity ratchets up another level.
Video: Cooper on Bolts match-up with Boston
"I think they push us to be better, and I think that's great. We probably do the same thing to them," Bolts forward Yanni Gourde said. "Those challenges against these teams are so exciting and fun to be a part of."
STAMKOS SURGERY SUCCESSFUL: Jon Cooper said all went well with Steven Stamkos' surgery in St. Louis Monday. Stamkos is expected to miss six to eight weeks while he recovers from the procedure to repair a core muscle injury.
"Now it's just recovery mode," Cooper said. "Nothing's changed in his timeline other than the fact that (the surgery's) over. It was successful. All's good. Now it's just a stopwatch when we can get him back. The timeline hasn't changed yet."