Boston Bruins

Mar 7, 2020; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (33) throws a punch at Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Pat Maroon (14) during the second period at TD Garden. (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com

If the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs come and go without a head-to-head between the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning (a meeting that would have to come in the second round because this playoff format stinks), I will feel personally robbed.

I’d make the case that we should have seen a matchup between these sides last spring, but the Columbus Blue Jackets had other plans and bounced the Bolts in historic (and ugly) fashion. But the top two teams in the Atlantic over the last three years are back at it once again (with Boston holding the upper hand this year by way of a seven-point division lead as of Sunday), and this once-unlikely rivalry has never had more juice than it does right now.

Make no mistake about it, Saturday night at TD Garden was straight-up hate and bloodlust on display for 60 minutes. There’s some mutual respect at play, sure, but this is a head-to-head featuring two teams who truly believe they better than the other.

“Listen, I think both of us feel we’re the best team in the Atlantic,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who helped lead the B’s to victory in Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, said following Saturday’s 5-3 decision. “The rivalry has developed now between the two of us and you’re going to get some intense matchups. And that’s what you got [Saturday].”

Both teams made moves to prove this, too.

When the Lightning added an analytics darling under contract beyond just this season (Blake Coleman), the Bruins did the same with their move for Ondrej Kase. And when the Bruins bolstered the physicality and jam of their bottom-nine with Nick Ritchie, the Lightning spent (and spent big) on Barclay Goodrow. And to a lesser extend, free agent defenseman Zach Bogosian. You saw what these players, especially the more physical ones, will bring to the mix. Hell, Ritchie is already taking Tampa numbers, as he sought out revenge on Goodrow after he elbowed Kase in the first period, and then suckered Coleman into a matching 10-minute misconducts following a post-whistle spat at the end of the second period.

“I’m glad to see that part of it; I mean, we were told he was a good teammate, so it doesn’t surprise me, but you never know until that situation presents itself,” said Cassidy. “After the hit on Kase, he was the first to go over, I believe, to try to sort of rectify that situation. But at the end of the day, he knows that’s part of what we do here and has learned quickly.”

But the need for more of this rivalry goes beyond the added beef and a heated Saturday. (And the need for Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli to catch some good ole’ fashioned hockey karma, but that’s a separate discussion entirely.)

It truly feels like these are the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and that this year’s Bruins seem truly ready for a real, seven-game series with Tampa Bay. That was not the case when these teams met back in 2018. Some of the younger members of that team — namely David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, Sean Kuraly, Matt Grzelcyk, and Charlie McAvoy — were still too young to win. (I’ve always felt that in this league, you need to lose before you can win. Just look at almost every team’s multi-year journey to a Cup.) And this young core did it in 2018 in a moment that was too big for them, and have looked every bit ready to avenge the loss of all losses in last year’s Game 7 defeat in the Stanley Cup Final.

And if the regular season was any indication, it’s not hard to imagine a series with the Lightning going at least six games.

“It was two very good hockey teams that wanted to win a game, and guys are sticking up for each other,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s one of those games that you don’t see it as much anymore, but intimidation still is a factor. When you look a tiger in the eye, don’t back down. Like I said, everybody goes on the bench. So, we know we have that in us, and not too many situations it’s pulled out, but in this one it was. I think a big reason why we won.”

It’d be a true coin-flip series.

But with the hate to make it must-watch.

Here are some other thoughts and notes from a heated loss to the Lightning…

Tuukka Rask could have given you more, but there’s no sense in worrying about his play

Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask did not play well on Saturday night; Both Tampa Bay shorties were gross and though that went beyond Rask, you most definitely need a stop on one of them. They’re the kind of goals that simply can’t happen that early in a game, and especially back-to-back. He could have and should have given them more.

But I’d caution against considering this the beginning of the end for Rask.

Entering Saturday’s contest, Rask had stopped 45-of-46 shots over his last 120 minutes (and against playoff-caliber opponents in the Islanders and Bolts), and even with the loss, Rask’s post-break record sits at 8-4-0 with a .929 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average. That .929 is the seventh-best among the 28 goalies with at least 10 appearances since then, and the 1.96 is the third-best mark among that group of 28. Rask has also posted a .945 save percentage at even-strength over that stretch, which only trails the Stars’ Anton Khudobin and his .963 at evens as the best in the league.

Percentages, percentages, percentages. I know, you get it by now.

But I think the biggest positive here is that Rask has still posted these numbers while having some definite stinkers such as last night, a home loss to Calgary, and that forgettable night in Vancouver. Turning the page hasn’t been a problem.

Should the Bruins just promote Sean Kuraly to the third line full time? 

With Ondrej Kase moved off the second line in favor of Jake DeBrusk midway through Saturday’s contest, Sean Kuraly found himself bumped back up to the left of Charlie Coyle on Boston’s third line. And in 7:55 of five-on-five play with Kuraly and Coyle on the ice together, the Bruins out-attempted Tampa Bay 12-to-6 and outshot them 8-to-0. That duo was also on the ice for Kuraly’s goal to bring the Bruins within one through 40 minutes of action. This combo has become… interesting. And it might be something to worth looking at given Boston’s plethora of fourth-line options (Par Lindholm has been fine when asked to center the Black and Gold’s fourth line) and Anders Bjork’s recent fall out of frame with scratches in three of four.

No, the NHL didn’t ban media from the locker room (yet)

A Saturday afternoon report indicated that the National Hockey League was going to go through a full postgame shutdown of their locker room thanks to the coronavirus. In other words, your postgame meetings with the player were going to be dunzo for the time being. That was not the case on Saturday, however, as both the Bruins and Lightning were open for business with “normal procedures.”

There were a few subtle differences — security guards were wearing gloves and the locker room didn’t feel as open as it typically does — but even if they decide to shut things down for a few weeks, there’s nothing to fret about.

Listen, if the difference between a healthy and infected locker room is as easy as banning reporters from coming in to ask zingers like “how did it feel to win a game?” and “that goal must have felt good, huh?” for a couple of weeks, that’s cool with me. In the grand scheme of things, postgame is where you get the least amount of juice for your story.

And while I don’t want to deny the need for beat writers to get meat for their story (thank you, Sports Hub, for allowing me to just throw whatever I want on the website), I don’t know. I just don’t love the idea of David Pastrnak missing two weeks with a superbug because some media dope sneezed in his mouth while asking if it’s fun to score a billion goals.

(I also do not want the coronavirus. I am saving all my sick days for Red Sox season.)

Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.