If you happened to skip Tampa Bay’s matchup with the Boston Bruins on Sunday in favor of March Madness, you didn’t miss much: just a 5-3 Lightning victory over a hated divisional rival, the breaking of a 10-game winless streak against said rival and an electrifying fight courtesy of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos.
With nine games remaining in the 2014-15 regular season, the Lightning are peaking at the right time, playing some of their best hockey of the season with the playoffs looming in the not-too-distant future.
The Bolts remain two points behind Montreal and the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay is second in the Atlantic Division but now has an eight-point lead over third-place Detroit (the Red Wings have a pair of games in hand though).
There was a lot to take in during Sunday’s victory, the Bolts’ franchise record 29th at home this season. Here are three takeaways from a supremely satisfying win.
1. LIGHTNING RALLY BEHIND STAMKOS
Steven Stamkos had seen enough.
He watched as Boston’s Brad Marchand roughed up Lightning All-Star center Tyler Johnson early in the first period.
He seethed after Marchand upended Valtteri Filppula unnecessarily behind the play.
At 10:05, Stamkos did something about it.
He asked Marchand if he wanted to fight. When Marchand didn’t respond initially, Stamkos asked again and Marchand finally said “yeah.”
The two threw their gloves onto the ice and tangled. It didn’t appear either fighter threw a punch during the fracas, but Stamkos managed to score a nice, two-point takedown of Marchand.
The fight didn’t have much action, and it didn’t last very long.
But, its effect was long-lasting.
Stamkos’ willingness to drop the gloves against a player that had tormented the Lightning over so many games galvanized the team, which would go on to score two goals in a 15-second span less than a minute after Stamkos and Marchand went to the penalty box.
“It looked like our game really took off after that,” Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. “He got everybody going in the building. He showed a lot of character.”
Three years had passed since the last time the Bolts defeated the Bruins. Lightning fans were starting to feel it would take something drastic to beat Boston.
On Sunday, Stamkos supplied the stimulant.
“For whatever reason, it felt right at that time, and it was nice to see the guys respond,” he said.
2. BEATING THE BIG, BAD BRUINS
For as much success as the Lightning have had against the Atlantic this season – a 17-3-3 record including seven-straight wins against Montreal and Detroit, the two closest challengers in the division – the Boston Bruins remained the one opponent the Bolts had yet to solve.
The Lightning had lost 10 consecutive games to the Bruins and hadn’t beaten Boston since the 2011-12 season (March 13, 2012).
But, despite the long-term futility against Boston, the Bolts were a confident group entering Sunday’s meeting.
“Just before the game, everyone had that, I think there was that silent confidence that (the Bruins) were coming off an overtime game last night, they played last night, we were fresh, I think it was a little combination of that and I think we had a great job of responding,” Stamkos said. “They score first shift, it could have been one of those “here we go again” moments, but we responded well and proud of the guys.”
With Boston being a possible first-round opponent of the Lightning in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it was important for the Bolts to get at least one victory over the Bruins during the regular season, as much for the team’s confidence than anything.
“They’ve had our number for a while, so it’s definitely good to finally get a little payback on them,” said Lightning forward J.T. Brown, who score the go-ahead goal.
3. NAMESTNIKOV MAKES HIS CASE
Since being brought up as an emergency recall from the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse on March 4 following an injury to J.T. Brown and subsequent injuries to Ondrej Palat and Cedric Paquette , forward Vladislav Namestnikov has fit in seamlessly with the Bolts.
The 22-year-old Namestnikov has played in eight-straight games after arriving in Tampa, scoring three goals and adding two assists.
In his sixth game back, Namestnikov was involved in his first NHL fight after dropping the gloves against Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher and held his own.
“The one thing about Vladdy, what’s going to keep him around is what’s in his head,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s always on the right side of pucks. He’s really smart. He’s dependable and he’s got a really good stick.”
On Sunday, Namestnikov provided a huge spark for the Bolts, tying the game with his rebound goal at 5:49 after Boston scored the game’s first marker 33 seconds in.
Paquette should come back from his upper-body injury at some point this week. When that happens, the Lightning should find room to make Namesnikov’s emergency callup a permanent one.
“He’s needed a few years of pro seasoning, but he is an NHL player let’s make no mistake about it,” Cooper said. “He’s making his case not to go anywhere.”