Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The Tampa Lightning are coming off a 2-0 win at the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, after having lost their previous two games, the first time they had lost consecutive games this season. The Boston Bruins lost against the Edmonton Oilers 4-2 on Sunday to end their four-game winning streak.
The Atlantic Division rivals are on opposite sides of the Stanley Cup Playoff picture right now, with the Lightning the top team in the Eastern Conference and the Bruins 12 points behind them and one point behind the Detroit Red Wings for third place in the division.
It should be a good one when the Lightning (17-5-2) visit the Bruins (10-8-4) at TD Garden on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NHL.TV). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: We have to start with the top line: Center Steven Stamkos and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov. Stamkos, with 36 points (10 goals, 26 assists) and Kucherov, with 35 (17 goals, 18 assists) are the top two scorers in the League. Namestnikov has 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists). They haven't been shut down often this season, but when they have, the depth has stepped up. Tampa Bay's two goals on Tuesday were scored by defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Dan Girardi). Center Brayden Point has 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists), and center Alex Killorn (two goals, 13 assists), forward Yanni Gourde (six goals, nine assists) and forward Ondrej Palat (seven goals, eight assists) each has 15 points.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been so good for them. He leads the League with 16 wins and had a 34-save shutout against the Sabres. He has taken the No. 1 job and run with it; Vasilevskiy is a Vezina candidate right now but perhaps is getting overlooked because of the Lightning's offense.
They've also revamped their defense. True, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman have been with them for a while but the additions of Sergachev and Girardi have helped. They've been a more physical team and have made it hard for opponents to generate space and chances. Most teams go for smaller, more mobile defensemen, but the Lightning have opted for bigger, physical players on the back end, and it has worked.
Video: TBL@WSH: Kucherov's shot hits off Namestnikov for PPG
Minuses: Three of Tampa Bay's seven losses this season have come on the second half of back-to-backs, and it enters the same situation on Wednesday. Vasilevskiy could be given the night off in favor of Peter Budaj, or coach John Cooper could decide to ride the hot hand against a division rival.
Stamkos plays a tough game. He has continued to evolve, do more and hasn't changed the way he plays despite his previous injuries. People who said he was one-dimensional and just a shooter couldn't be any more mistaken based on how much he has expanded his game this season. Let's just hope his style of play doesn't lead to another injury.
The Lightning want to be a team that's balanced between how they defend and how they attack. Sometimes they go away from that and when they do, that's how they go into the little funks, like losing three of four prior to Tuesday.
Pluses: The opportunity for the young guys to play is there, and they are making the most of it. Forward Jake DeBrusk, with 12 points (five goals, seven assists), defenseman Charlie McAvoy (two goals, nine assists) and center Danton Heinen (four goals, seven assists), each with 11, and forward Anders Bjork, with nine points (three goals, six assists) are just a few who have made an impact in Boston.
Backup goaltender Anton Khudobin has been great. It's somewhat surprising to see him play as well as he has and No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask play as poorly as he has. Khudobin is 7-0-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Rask has three wins in 13 starts (3-8-2, 2.91 GAA, .899 SV%) and for whatever reason is struggling. If nothing else, it's important for the Bruins to give Rask time to get his game back, and they can do that with Khudobin on top of his.
Lastly, Boston is playing a faster brand of hockey. It really makes a big difference. We've known the Bruins as a defense-first team for a long time, but now they're putting an emphasis on offense. It's been a transformation for them, but it's been fun to watch.
Video: PIT@BOS: Khudobin comes up with clutch pad stop
Minuses: Boston struggles with consistency, which makes sense because of the influx of youth; seven players have scored their first NHL goal with them this season. They Bruins have the veterans in defenseman Zdeno Chara, 40, centers Patrice Bergeron, 32, and David Krejci, 31, and forward Brad Marchand, 29, but it's a process.
You can go up and down the lineup. They've had different guys out of the lineup. Rask, Bergeron, Marchand, center David Backes. But they've still managed to tread water, which is good.
Another problem is they don't have a powerhouse smash-mouth forward anymore. With Milan Lucic being gone for the past few seasons, no one has filled that role. They have offensive players and physical players, but no one who has been a blend quite like Lucic.
Three things to watch
1. How many minutes will Chara and McAvoy play against the Lightning's top line and will Bergeron's line match up with them?
2. How many penalties will the Bruins take? You can't give the Lightning many chances, especially on the power play.
3. The battle between Sergachev and McAvoy. Each has a different style of play, but each has been effective.