TAMPA, Fla. — The way the schedule lined up, the Tampa Bay Lightning knew they’d be facing the Boston Bruins three times in the final 12 games of the regular season.
And now, having lost the first two games by a combined score of 7-2 and trailing the Bruins in the standings in the final week of the season, there’s much on the line when the teams meet Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
“It’s going to probably have a big determination of which team comes first, let’s be honest,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the divisional implications. “We win the game, we’re right back in it. They win it, they’ve probably got it. It’s Game 80, but it’s big Game 80.”
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Boston (49-17-12) has picked up points in nine straight games and now has a two-point lead in the standings — with a game in hand — over the Lightning (52-23-4), who led the Atlantic Division most of the season.
Tampa Bay is reeling, having gone 1-4 in its last five and having star Steven Stamkos questionable with a lower-body injury sustained in Saturday’s loss to Nashville.
Boston is 4-0-2 in its last six, and now stands as the only NHL team ranking in the top five in scoring, goals allowed, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage.
“It’s fun to play together — we have each other’s backs,” Boston’s Torey Krug said after the Bruins rallied from 3-1 down Sunday, getting a tying goal with 3.8 seconds remaining to salvage a point in an overtime loss to Philadelphia. “It doesn’t matter what the time or the score is. It’s good to get that point.”
The Atlantic champion will face a wild card from the other division, either Columbus, Philadelphia or New Jersey, all within a point in the standings.
The runner-up will likely face third-seeded Toronto — the Lightning are 3-1 against the Maple Leafs this season — but it would still mean a tougher playoff path and losing home-ice advantage should they eventually meet the Bruins again.
Boston has won the last two meetings with Tampa Bay on the strength of its special teams. The Bruins have killed off the NHL’s No. 2 power play on six of seven opportunities in the two games, and their power play has converted three of five chances.
Cooper said whether to rest Stamkos this week or keep him on the ice to build momentum for the postseason will depend on his health, but the team has a long-term focus as the playoffs approach.
Beat Boston on Tuesday and their final two games are against non-playoff opponents Buffalo and Carolina for a shot at four points in the final two days of the regular season.
“We need (Stamkos) feeling his best a week and a half from now, and not necessarily right now,” Cooper said. “However, we can help that, we will. We want to get better as a team in the next three games. We want to make sure we’re ready as a group.”