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Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning: Playoff push starts now

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The best teams in the Atlantic meet for the first of three late-season games

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Boston Bruins Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning: GAME 71

Time: 7:00 PM EDT

Location: Amalie Arena

Broadcast/Streaming: SUN, NESN

Opponent SBNation Site: Stanley Cup of Chowder

Preview:

The Lightning and Bruins are the two best teams in the eastern conference and, starting tonight, they’ll meet three times between now and the end of the season. These three games will be significant in determining which team wins the Atlantic Division and earns the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference. And with Nashville only a few points ahead, both teams still have a chance at the President’s Trophy.

The Lightning are currently first in the Atlantic and the Eastern Conference with 100 points through 70 games. The Bruins sit at 96 through 69 (nice). With the Leafs at 91 through 71, the chances of anyone other than Boston or Tampa winning the division are slim.

A win for the Bruins would be a big step toward catching the Bolts, but, unfortunately for them, they’ve suffered a run of injuries that will make that difficult. Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and Charlie McAvoy will all miss tonight’s game. That removes Boston’s perennial Selke contending top line center and their entire top defensive pairing.

The Lightning will still be without Ondrej Palat, but that’s not enough to level the injury scales. Considering the stakes, this is a game they need to win to put an extra two points between themselves and the Bruins. Losing this game would put them practically in a tie for first and would not bode well for how they might fare against a fully healthy Bruins team.

And as we can see by looking at the comparison chart for this game, a fully healthy Bruins team is one of the best teams in the league and a real threat to win the Cup this year.

Boston’s shot share and expected goal share are among the best in the league. They’ve been a team driven by defense, but in the last ten games, their offense seems to be catching up to their defense. That’s a scary proposition. They’ve had average shooting and goaltending and show no signs that their results are driven by luck.

They’ve been solid on special teams. Nothing spectacular, but also no major weakness. Their power play is around league average. Their penalty kill has been excellent this season, but has looked average lately.

In some ways, they’re a strong contrast to the Lightning. While the Lightning have good shot metrics, their success is driven by high end offensive talent that shoot a high percentage and outperform their expected results. The Bruins achieve their results with excellent shot metrics and average finishing.

The key to this game for the Lightning will likely be goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy has struggled lately. Regaining form against a top team would be a huge boost for him and the team. Given how Boston tends to control play, he’ll almost certainly need to make some big saves for the Lightning to get two points.

This three game series over the next few weeks will set the tone for a potential second round matchup between these two teams. These games will also give each team’s coaching staff a chance to get familiar with the other team and build up a trove of recent head-to-head video ahead of a playoff series where understanding matchups becomes much more important than in the regular season.

These teams could play as many as ten times over the next six weeks or so. The first three games could determine who has home ice advantage in the next seven. The push for the playoffs starts tonight.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forward Lines

J.T. Miller - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov

Yanni Gourde - Brayden Point - Tyler Johnson

Adam Erne - Anthony Cirelli - Alex Killorn

Ryan Callahan - Cedric Paquette - Chris Kunitz

Cory Conacher

Defense

Victor Hedman - Jake Dotchin

Mikhail Sergachev - Anton Stralman

Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi

[Braydon Coburn - Andrej Sustr - Slater Koekkoek]

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj

Boston Bruins

Forwards

Brad Marchand - Riley Nash - David Pastrnak

Danton Heinen - David Krejci - Rick Nash

Tommy Wingels - David Backes - Brian Gionta

Tim Schaller - Sean Kurali - Noel Acciari

Defense

Nick Holden - Kevan Miller

Torey Krug - Adam McQuaid

Matt Grzelcyk - Brandon Carlo

Goaltenders

Tuuka Rask (starter)

Anton Khudobin