TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen the standard, and it wears black and gold.
They have witnessed one of the East’s best, a physical foe that has bruised and battered its way to the top of the Atlantic Division, and the target is clear.
It wears a "B" on its chest. The letter might as well stand for brutal. Or bully.
"Well, we played them four times and they beat us four times, so if it was a playoff series, it wouldn’t have been good," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Saturday’s 4-3 shootout loss to Boston at Tampa Bay Times Forum. "It’s not rocket science — they’re a better team than we are right now. Can we beat Boston? I do think we can beat them."
We’ve reached a point in the NHL schedule where eyes peek past March and into April with postseason visions.
Barring a late collapse, the Bruins will own a prime perch in the playoffs. After Saturday, they trailed the Pittsburgh Penguins by one point in the Eastern Conference. The New England brutes offer Tampa Bay a recipe for how to survive the season’s stretch run.
The ingredients: A pinch of finesse with a heavy dose of body banging. A healthy splash of late-game heart doesn’t hurt either.
These are no weeks for the weary.
"I thought we played well," said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, after Boston winger Reilly Smith poked the shootout’s lone goal past Ben Bishop. "Both goaltenders made the saves when they had to. I think we both had some chances."
Oh, the Lightning had plenty of chances, including leads of 2-0 in the second period and 3-2 in the third. That should be the weekend’s takeaway, even if the loss meant they have dropped nine of 12 games since Jan. 28.
Only so much can be drawn from a single night, but the gap between the two appears smaller than before. In their first three games this season, the Lightning had been the nail to the Bruins’ hammer, with Boston outscoring Tampa Bay 11-1 during two contests in Beantown and one on Channelside Drive.
The Bolts showed grit Saturday, and they could use more of it in the week ahead against Phoenix, Florida, New Jersey and Vancouver.
There was defenseman Keith Aulie slugging it out with Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton in the first period. There was the 13:54 that elapsed before Boston earned its first shot on goal, from center Chris Kelly, an attempt that drew mock cheers. There was the as-promised physicality from new winger Ryan Callahan, who mixed it up in the corners with Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
All positives. Now, the real trick: Finding a way to scratch out victories once more.
"I thought we played pretty well tonight," Bishop said. "We probably could have won that game. It’s a fluky third goal. It goes to a shootout, and it’s anybody’s game."
There’s the rub. As well as the Lightning played Saturday — Cooper called it the best he had seen since the Olympic break — they still lost their fifth of six games since pucks were dropped after the recess in Russia.
A lot has happened since Feb. 27 — a bumpy four-game road trip, Stamkos’ return, Marty St. Louis’ departure, Callahan’s arrival — but the Lightning must turn their focus inward while keeping their necks on a swivel with threats like the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jacks, Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils behind them in the playoff chase. After the latest loss, only three points separated them from the final postseason slot.
Stealing a bit of Boston’s attitude wouldn’t hurt.
"It’s really tight," Lightning winger Ondrej Palat said, "so every point is important for us. So we just need to focus on the next game, and we need the points to make the playoffs."
This is no call to drop the personality that made Tampa Bay a contender in the first place. With St. Louis gone, growing pains are expected in a new normal. But this remains a lineup that will rely on Stamkos’ scoring and Bishop’s goaltending to survive.
Still, after Callahan’s addition, Cooper admitted the former Rangers captain gave the Lightning "snarl" that the lineup had lacked before St. Louis packed his bags for a new life at Penn Station.
All season, the Bolts have had potential for offensive flash — they rank 14th in the league with an average of 2.77 goals per game — and if this were pigskin instead of pucks, they would be a fast-break spread-style attack that uses finesse to outwit opponents. It’s seen in examples like their 4-0 record against Detroit.
Adding a touch of rough-and-tumble attitude, though, would be wise.
"Some teams have good matchups against other teams, but does that make Boston a lion’s share better than us? Or are we a lion’s share better than Detroit? I’d say ‘no’ to both those," Cooper said. "One team finds a little success against the other. That’s how it goes."
And that’s how this time can be — a moment when contenders realize the urgency of the coming weeks, no matter the obstacles ahead or behind them. Boston has had Tampa Bay’s number all winter, an enigma within a surprise season.
The Lightning must add more "B" to their bite to extend spring.