The Boston Bruins might lead the Atlantic Division and rank second overall in the National Hockey League standings.
But the Tampa Bay Lightning have had the Bruins' number this season, continuing their domination over their division nemesis since the playoff series between the teams two seasons ago.
Tampa Bay outworked the Bruins in a 3-2 victory Thursday night at AMALIE Arena, the Lightning building a two-goal lead in the third period thanks to Steven Stamkos' eventual game-winner, the second of his two goals on the night, and holding on late under the Bruins' relentless pressure. The Bolts have won both meetings against the Bruins this season (Tampa Bay was a 4-3 shootout winner in Boston Oct. 17), six of the last seven in the regular season against the Bruins and 10 of the last 12 including the playoffs.
The Lightning have lamented their inability in recent weeks to pick up wins against the top teams in the NHL despite their improved play.
Now the Lightning have that confidence-building, quality win over one of the League's heavyweights they can point at to show how much their game has improved in the last month.
Here's how they were able to pull off the win.
Video: BOS@TBL: Point finishes off Kucherov's feed for PPG
1. POWER SURGE
With a 1-0 lead at the first intermission, Boston started to take control in the second period. The Bruins had sustained time in the offensive zone and fired off multiple shots while in there. During a 4-on-4, the Bruins held possession for nearly the entire two minutes and strung together probing passes that unlocked the Bolts if not for the heroics of netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"We kind of lost our way a little bit in that 4-on-4, and (Vasilevskiy) made some amazing saves to keep that game tied and we carried on from there," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "There are going to be breakdowns in games, and when he can come up big for you, that's what we needed."
At 12:29 of the second, Alex Killorn drew a tripping penalty on John Moore for the second time in the game. The Lightning needed to gain a little momentum as the game was starting to get away from them a bit.
Instead, they completely flipped the ice.
Nikita Kucherov dug the puck out of the corner following a face-off loss and found a wide-open Steven Stamkos at the hash marks. The Lightning captain had time and space to pick his spot and went five-hole through Boston netminder Tuukka Rask to tie the game 1-1.
"Kuch made a tremendous play," Stamkos said. "We lost the draw, but he lifted I think it was Chara's stick maybe and knew I was going to be there. I had all day. I figured that Tuukka wasn't expecting a five-hole shot, so I think I surprised him a little bit."
It was what the Lightning did after scoring on the power play that was most impressive, however.
The Bolts continued to pressure the Boston goal and had multiple opportunities to take the lead, notably Ondrej Palat had a backhand rebound opportunity on the back post that fluttered just wide. And while the Lightning were creating plenty of scoring chances for themselves, they weren't giving any up to the Bruins.
In the third period, the Lightning continued to press, and they were rewarded when Brayden Point scored from the front of the net on a power play. Tampa Bay took its first lead at 2-1 and never trailed again.
"To get the special teams battle tonight against a team with a quality power play like that was huge," Stamkos said.
Video: Cooper on Bolts 3-2 victory over Boston
2. STAYING OUT OF THE BOX
Boston's power play has been one of the best in the NHL for a few seasons.
The Lightning learned that lesson the hard way the first time the two teams met, the Bruins scoring all three of their goals on the power play, including one with 3:05 remaining to force overtime, the Bolts overcoming their special teams woes to eventually win in a shootout.
Tampa Bay knew entering Thursday's game a major key to beating the Bruins would be to stay out of the penalty box.
And they were disciplined in their approach, the Lightning allowing just two power plays to the Bruins, which they were able to kill with relative ease.
Boston never got a chance to change the tone of the game or swing momentum on the power play because the Lightning didn't give them those opportunities by committing needless penalties, and the few penalties the Bolts did commit, they were able to kill off with an aggressive penalty kill that didn't let the Bruins get comfortable in the offensive zone.
"You have to try to win that special teams war," Cooper said. "For Stammer to get that PP goal right out of the gate was huge for us, but, again, a couple power-play goals and not to give any up, especially only take two penalties, that's what we have to do, especially if we want to compete with the big boys in the East."
Video: Stamkos on two big goals against Bruins
3. EXTENDING THE LEAD
The Lightning held a 2-1 advantage for much of the third period but knew they'd probably need to score one more to give themselves some breathing room.
Stamkos provided that insurance marker with his second goal of the game, the eventual game-winner coming with 4:47 to go.
With the puck in the offensive zone and the Bruins trying to get it out, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn disrupted just enough on the forecheck to keep Boston uncomfortable. Patrice Bergeron tried to chip a puck out of the zone and ahead to David Pastrnak, but Stamkos swung around to knock the pass out of the air and gain control.
With open room in front of him, Stamkos skated into the high slot and flicked a wrist shot high to the glove side. The puck deflected off the shoulder of Rask and went over his glove and into the back of the net.
The Lightning would need that pivotal goal too. With 3:15 remaining, John Moore found a loose puck at the side of the net and lifted a shot over the shoulder of Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and into the net to cut the margin to one. The Bruins pulled the goalie with a little more than two minutes remaining and continued to pressure the Bolts' goal, but the Lightning stayed focused defensively to close out the win and not let the Bruins get a high-quality scoring chance in their attempt to tie.
"You've just got to continue this. Whatever you say about our first how many games we've played, we have actually been playing pretty well here for the last month," Cooper said. "Our issue was just our attention to detail in our own end and doing things like that, but when you get into these close ones, we got the lead and we extended it, which we needed to because we gave up that late one. But to be able to weather through that and close out games, it just kind of builds that confidence with the group."