The journey through any NHL season finds many potential road blocks, detours and pot holes.
How teams maneuver around those hazards defines where they end up when the season ends.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, the next challenge on their journey comes donning black and gold as the Boston Bruins come to town for the first time this season. While many will view the game as a rematch of the 2011 Eastern Conference final, the reality is that only the Bruins have been able to maintain that same level of play since the teams played for the right to advance to the Stanley Cup finals.
“The last few years, they have been the ones, and I don’t want to say the standard, but they have been up there a few years and they are a challenge for teams,’’ Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier said.
It will also be a good test for Tampa Bay, which has won consecutive games following a six-game winless streak. And though it would appear that the Lightning have righted their ship, so to speak, with back-to-back wins for the first time this month, the Bruins are coming in rested, if not a little weary. More than a handful of Boston players have been overcoming the effects of the flu the past couple of days.
Many of the Lightning’s opponents at home this season have come to the Forum having played the previous night in Sunrise against the Panthers, and Tampa Bay has won all four of those contests. Tampa Bay has gone 2-2-1 against teams coming in fresh.
The Bruins come in with a 9-2-2 record, including 5-1-1 on the road, where Boston has allowed one power-play goal in 27 shorthanded situations. And the Bruins have not played since a 3-2 victory at Winnipeg on Sunday.
“They are always one of the top teams in the conference, and they are off to a good start,’’ right wing Teddy Purcell said. “They are always a good team and we always have good battles against them. It’s going to be a good measuring stick for us and we’re looking forward to it.’’
There it is, the proverbial, “let’s see where we stack up” notion. But in this case, it’s probably a true statement as Tampa Bay puts its modest two-game winning streak on the line against a balanced and deep Bruins team that plays strong defensively and rolls four consistent lines that can score.
“They are a very confident group — they don’t really have any big flaws that you can really attack,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “Every team has strengths and flaws, and you want to attack their flaws and defend against their strengths. And they have depth at all positions, they have everything whether it’s on defense or in the nets. They have experience in winning and they have kept pretty much the core players for years and the same coach, so they have that culture that’s very strong, and when you play them you play more than just one team, you play that whole culture. And it’s difficult to beat them.’’
Once you get past all of that, there is the persona of the Big Bad Bruins, the reputation of being an intimidating team. With some big players such as Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid and rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton, Boston has nine position players who stand at least 6-foot-2.
“Yes, they are big and they are nasty; they play a tough game,’’ Purcell said.
But Boucher looks beyond that physical reputation and sees something different, which stood out when the teams faced off in the 2011 postseason.
“When I look at the Boston Bruins, I think they are well coached and they play smart,” Boucher said. “Their physicality, for me, is the second part of their strength, not the first part of their strength. I really believe that they just play smart.”
A smart and tough opponent, and a challenge for any team to overcome.