It's been three days since the Tampa Bay Lightning played one of their worst games of the season, falling at home 7-4 to the second-to-worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators, giving up a season-high seven goals in the process.
Up next on the schedule for the Lightning is maybe their toughest opponent to date. The Boston Bruins reside in second place in the Atlantic and are chasing the Bolts for the division crown. Since the calendar flipped from 2017 to 2018, no other Eastern Conference team has fared as well as Boston, the Bruins going 23-7-2 since January 1 to leapfrog the Toronto Maple Leafs for second in the Atlantic and chase down the Lightning, who once held a double-digit lead in the division.
Normally, seeing such a formidable foe on the docket following a confidence-shaking performance could be worrisome.
But not so for the Lightning according to associate coach Rick Bowness, who said Saturday's game against Boston is coming at "the perfect time" for Tampa Bay.
"We just had a stinker against Ottawa and with the Bruins coming in, it gets your attention," Bowness said after the Lightning wrapped up a practice session at AMALIE Arena Friday. "They're a great hockey club, very well coached and they're right on our heels fighting for first place in our division. It's a perfect time, and you know what, we expect our guys to respond but we'll learn tomorrow night obviously. Judging on what we've done the last couple days, I expect that game will have their full attention."
Video: Bowness | Post-Practice
The players have certainly responded with their full attention in practice leading up to the showdown with the Bruins, but that's likely to happen no matter the opponent after giving up seven goals and getting blown out on home ice to an Ottawa team who's playoff hopes lie somewhere between on life support and not a chance.
The fact that the Bruins are up next though has amplified their alertness. The Lightning are currently four points up on Boston for the top spot in the Atlantic, but the Bruins have a game in hand. Tampa Bay and Boston will play three times over the final 12 games of the regular season with the outcome of all three likely determining which team will get the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the upcoming playoffs.
"We had a video session before practice (today) and the coaches remarked when they walked out, 'Wow, there was good energy in the room,'" Bowness said. "Some mornings you walk in there and they're tired. You've got to jump up and down to get their attention. But today we walked in and we felt the energy was there and the focus was there and for the most part we had a really good practice. That has to show itself (Saturday) night."
The Lightning have done well in games against top opponents for the most part this season, showing an ability to rise to the occasion when the spotlight has shined brightest. Toronto trailed Tampa Bay by four points and was looking to further close the gap with the division leader when it traveled to AMALIE Arena for a highly-anticipated showdown February 26. The Lightning prevailed 4-3 in a shootout.
After losing three in a row for the first time all season, the Lightning needed to stop the bleeding when they took on the Chicago Blackhawks in Chicago on January 22. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped all 40 shots he faced in a 2-0 shutout win for the Bolts. A day later, facing arguably the best team in the Western Conference in Nashville, the Lightning scored a late game-tying goal off the stick of Steven Stamkos and defeated the Predators 4-3 in overtime on Yanni Gourde's game-winner.
Even going back to road games at Washington (Feb. 20), at St. Louis (Jan. 12) and at Dallas (March 1), cities where the Lightning have had little success, Tampa Bay was able to overcome recent history and prevail.
If anything this season, the Bolts have proven they're a big-game team.
They'll look to do so again in maybe they're biggest game of the regular season Saturday versus Boston.
"Anytime you get challenged, you want to have a really nice response," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "And we seem to be a team that does that and wants to be in those type of games. I'm sure we're going to be ready for tomorrow, and I'm sure they're going to be too. It's a tight race for the division, and it'll be a fun game."