If the regular season ended today, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins would be paired up for the opening round of the playoffs.
With recently acquired Ryan Callahan adjusting to his new surroundings and Steven Stamkos working himself into top form, the Lightning have to be happy that 19 games remain on their schedule.
The Lightning look to end a three-game losing streak as they play their second on a six-game homestand against the Bruins on Saturday night.
Tampa Bay (34-24-5) has gone 3-8-0 since winning three straight from Jan. 19-25 and is currently seventh in the Eastern Conference with 73 points. Atlantic Division-leading Boston (40-17-5) is second in the East with 85, just behind Pittsburgh.
The Bruins would likely welcome a postseason series against the Lightning, who have dropped seven straight and 11 of their last 13 regular-season games versus Boston, including all three matchups this season by a combined score of 11-1.
It was in a 3-0 loss at Boston on Nov. 11 that Stamkos suffered a broken right shin that sidelined him for 45 games. Tampa Bay, which went 22-18-5 without Stamkos, finally got its high-scoring center back Thursday, but the team couldn’t get much past Buffalo’s Jhonas Enroth despite putting 44 shots on net in a 3-1 loss to the Sabres.
"For the most part I felt good," said Stamkos, who had five shots in 21:03 of ice time. "It’s a step in the right direction. You can feel it a little out there as the play progresses, but I felt like I played a lot tonight and felt pretty good. As the game went on, my timing felt great with the puck."
Tyler Johnson ended Enroth’s shutout bid on a short-handed goal with 2:29 to go.
Stamkos was named the team’s new captain after veteran Martin St. Louis was shipped to the New York Rangers for Callahan. The former Rangers captain saw plenty of action in his debut Thursday with 21 shifts in over 16 minutes.
"As the game went on, I got more and more comfortable with who I was playing with," Callahan said. "More comfortable on the ice."
The Lightning will need Callahan and Stamkos to get familiar with their new linemates quickly with several teams chasing them. Tampa Bay, which has lost four of five since the Olympic break, is slightly ahead of four teams sitting on at least 67 points.
In order to turn it around against the Bruins, the Lightning need to solve Tuukka Rask, who has been in net for all three of Boston’s victories in the series this season.
Rask has two shutouts in the three games, stopping 83 of 84 shots. He is unbeaten in his last five starts against Tampa Bay with a .979 save percentage and 0.60 goals-against average.
Rask, who blanked the United States to lead Finland to a bronze medal in Sochi, earned his sixth NHL shutout this season – a career best – and 22nd of his career with a 3-0 win over Washington on Thursday.
It came rather easily for Rask, who faced only 16 shots behind a defense that brought in some veteran experience at the deadline by trading for Andrej Meszaros and obtaining Corey Potter on waivers.
"We did a great job of getting on them quickly and not giving them opportunities to make too many plays," Bruins coach Claude Julien said.
Gregory Campbell, Loui Eriksson and Brad Marchard scored for the Bruins.
The victory was the third straight for Boston, which has only two regulation losses since Jan. 16 – going 11-2-3 in that span.