Game 8 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Boston Bruins

The Lightning (5-2-0, 10 PTS), perhaps a bit invigorated after closing out the Wild with a dominant showing in the final period, plays host to the Bruins (4-2-0, 8 PTS), which needed a last minute goal, after controlling play throughout, to edge past the Panthers the other night. The two clubs last met in Boston in what was the season opener for both clubs, a closely-contested match that ended in defeat for the Bolts largely because of self-inflicted wounds stemming from sloppy play while enjoying the man-advantage.

Since that initial contest, Tampa Bay has won four of its past five matches while the Boston has gone 3-2, losing twice at the TD Garden (which may come as a bit of a surprise to Lightning fans) to Colorado, which managed a shutout, and Detroit, which grabbed a 2nd period lead it was able to hold onto. As a result, Lightning come into tonight’s game slightly ahead in the standings but the Bruins hold a game in hand. If there’s any place the Lightning might be inclined to square off against this year-in, year-out contender, it’s at home where the Bolts have taken 5 of last 8 decisions dating back to the last 2010-2011 season (and including the playoffs), although the B’s took the only match at the Forum during the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 campaign.

The Bruins’ standing recipe for success is predicated on stifling defense, establishing possession and maintaining control of the puck, an aspect the Bruins, by the way, have been consistently good at in recent seasons and, not surprisingly, are among the early leaders, however you want to slice it (Corsi or Fenwick; All, 5v5 or 5v5 Close) yet again this season. Yes, Boston often benefits from terrific goaltending but the disciplined play by the skaters in front goes a long way to ensure Tuuka Rask, like Tim Thomas before him, doesn’t often see a ton of rubber and sustained pressure in their own end, thereby limiting their opponents’ scoring chances. This is an organization, after all, that has shed offensive thoroughbreds — Phil Kessel in 2009 and, more recently, Tyler Seguin (who the Bruins were able to draft as a result of moving Kessel) — in favor of two-way forwards who are effective over all 200 feet of the ice. You can see this in the decision to part with Seguin in order to land Loui Erikkson.

General Manager Pete Chiarelli has continually constructed the Bruins roster as a whole — built on the sturdy, gargantuan foundation that is Zdeno Chara — to be greater than the sum of its parts: the opposition’s best unit is fed a steady diet of Chara and Patrice Bergeron, one of the league’s premier shutdown pivots who also happens to possess plenty of offensive acumen, thus allowing the Bruins’ depth goes to work on the lesser competition in what essentially becomes a battle of attrition. More often than not, it’s a winning formula but even when it’s not, there’s a good insurance policy patrolling the crease wearing the black and gold sweater. On most nights, this is enough and it’s a good enough set up to see the club routinely qualify for and fare well in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has the flash that Boston, which should never be mistaken for an offensive juggernaut, lacks. This is a byproduct of having one of the elite snipers in the game skating alongside one of the best and durable play-making wingers the league has seen over the past decade-plus. Offense hasn’t been a concern in recent seasons, though, and it’s certainly not now, with the Lightning among the league’s best in finding the net to date, thanks to a productive power play that has bolstered middle-of-the-road even-strength production.

The Bolts, though, owe much of their success to what’s transpired in their own third of the ice: Ben Bishop has been very difficult for opponents to solve and the skaters in front, to their credit, have managed to cut down on the shots on goal and the overall attempts opponents manage when the game is tight. The results, the whims of lady luck aside, have been magnificent: the Lightning have only surrendered 7 even-strength goals in 21 periods of play and the Lightning’s penalty-killing, the stats for which are being skewed by the disastrous shorthanded performance against the Penguins, has been decent. Some corrections will come, but this is a promising start to head coach Jon Cooper’s first full season steering the ship. It’s not exact emulation but the Lightning, in a sense, going to the same well the Bruins have in becoming so successful: team defense, balanced scoring and dependable goaltending. Tampa Bay still has a bit of ground to cover in terms of driving possession but it didn’t

Looking ahead, if the Lightning can take at least one of the next two matches and then finish the home stand by taking care of business against a Sabres squad that has appears well on its way to a lottery pick, it will have taken 14 of the first 20 points possible. If the Bolts can achieve this, Cooper should have a confident, energized group to work with heading into the next slate of 10 games, one that the hockey gods have admittedly been shining upon but has nonetheless helped its own cause, particularly with its even-strength play.

It’s a long season, of course, with a lot of variables that can change but that that the Lightning has, on the balance, shown it can go toe-to-toe with the some very stiff competition in the first few weeks is a thrilling development for an organization and a fan base which has taken quite a few lumps over the past couple seasons. On the other hand, the prospect of a Lightning revival — one fueled by balanced and timely scoring as well as capable goaltending behind a team defense whose improvement is statistically evident and also passes the eye test — ought to be a sobering proposition for some of its divisional and conference competition.


Season Series

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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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