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Lightning will be tested with games against NHL's top two teams

Upcoming games against the Bruins and Capitals give the Bolts a chance to measure their progress

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning have liked a lot about the way they've been playing of late, a couple results like a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday and a comeback bid falling short versus Minnesota a week ago notwithstanding.

But over the next two games, the Lightning will get a chance to prove whether that progress is real or fool's gold.

Tampa Bay welcomes the top two teams in the National Hockey League, points-wise, to AMALIE Arena in the next three days. The Lightning host the Atlantic Division-topping Boston Bruins Thursday (7 p.m. puck drop) before squaring off against the League's top team Saturday when the Washington Capitals visit the Bay Area.

The Lightning hosted the third-best team in the East (4th overall) on Monday when they fell 5-1 to the Islanders. They're hoping for a better outcome in their second chance to prove themselves against the NHL's elite.

Video: Preview | Lightning vs Bruins

"We're at a point in the season that we've talked about wanting to get on a little roll here," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who enters Thursday's game on a three-game goal streak. "I think our game has been trending in the right direction, even with the loss to the Islanders, we talked about, for the most part, playing the right way. It was a good effort against the Panthers. Now we've got a really good test against a team that obviously is at the top of their game. It's going to be good for us tonight."

The Lightning are catching Boston at an opportune time perhaps. The Bruins have lost four in a row following Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Capitals in D.C. and are playing the second half of a back-to-back, the team arriving in Tampa at 2 a.m. Thursday morning.

The Lightning have also had a good amount of success against the Bruins in recent seasons too. Since a 4-0 shutout win at AMALIE Arena in the third-to-last game of the 2017-18 regular season, Tampa Bay has won 9 of its last 11 games against Boston. That includes four out of five wins in an Eastern Conference Semifinal playoff series that same season and a 4-3 shootout win in an earlier meeting this season in Boston (Oct. 17), Stamkos the only player from either team to convert in the shootout (4th round).

"We have a few games in hand still coming off that Sweden trip, so we've got to keep collecting points," Stamkos said. "That's kind of the mindset that we've had. We'll continue to have that mindset. We've got to still make a push here. We're still out of the (playoff) mix."

The challenge for the Lightning tonight against Boston is slowing down the three-headed monster that linemates David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand present. Pastrnak leads the NHL for goals (26) by a sizable margin (Washington's Alex Ovechkin is second with 21). Marchand paces the Bruins for points (47) and ranks fourth in the League. And Bergeron is the perennial Selke Trophy candidate who makes the trio click.

In the Bolts win in Boston earlier this season, Pastrnak netted a pair of goals and Bergeron scored the third, all three goals coming on the power play.

"Make sure that we have the puck more than them, don't let them get in places where they want to have the puck, (don't) let them make plays, take away the middle ice from them, every single defensive hockey cliché that you can come up with, I'm using it right now," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper responded when asked how you shut down that terrific trio. "That's what we need to do because in the end, you're not going to stop them, you can only hope to contain them."

The Lightning will have the advantage of being able to match lines with tonight's contest at home, but Cooper said sometimes that's a bit overblown because you're not going to be able to get your top defensive line out on the ice against the Pastrnak-Bergeron-Marchand group 100 percent of the time.

Video: Cooper on match-up with first place Bruins

"It's hard with matchups because you go in with your head thinking one thing and often times the game will dictate whether you stay with it or change it," Cooper said. "But you have to have multiple lines and a couple pairs of D that can go against those guys because they play a lot. You have to be on it on the bench. As long as guys recognize who's on the ice and the tendencies of these players, we should be okay."

JOHNSON PROGRESSING: Tyler Johnson has missed the last two games while he continues to deal with a lower-body injury.

Johnson won't play tonight against the Bruins and probably won't be available for Saturday's tilt with Washington either. But after that, he could be nearing a return to action, Cooper said.

Johnson is listed as week-to-week. He sustained an injury in the Bolts' 7-1 win over San Jose on Saturday, a game in which he scored a pair of goals.

"He's not playing tonight. Probably won't play the next one. After that…he'll be getting close," Cooper said. "…Hopefully within the next week."

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