|Atlantic supremacy on line as Bruins visit Lightning|
TAMPA, Fla. -- As much as anything that can be considered a playoff preview, the Tampa Bay Lightning play host to the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, the first of three meetings in the final 12 games of the regular season.
Tampa Bay (48-18-4) continues to lead the Atlantic Division, but it is only four points up on the Bruins (44-17-8), who also have a game in hand as they make a final push for the top seed in the division.
"This is the perfect time for Boston to come in," Lightning associate head coach Rick Bowness said. "We just had a stinker against Ottawa. With the Bruins coming in, it gets your attention right away. They're a great hockey club, very well-coached and they're right on our heels, fighting for first place in our division."
The Lightning had won five in a row and were 9-0-1 in their last 10 before a humbling 7-4 loss to the Senators on Tuesday night. They had an extended break to catch up on tired legs, and to refocus on weaknesses entering the final stretch of the season.
"We've made the most of the three days," Bowness said. "We're just hoping to see us play a little bit sharper. There are certain areas of our game, obviously penalty kill being No. 1."
Boston has lost two of three games on its current road trip, including a 3-0 loss at Florida. The Bruins won the first meeting against the Lightning 3-2 in Boston in November, so there's confidence there.
"It's a big moment for us. If we want a chance to catch them, it probably starts (here)," Boston defenseman Torey Krug said. "We play them a couple more times down the road, so it will set the tone in that regard."
Tampa Bay goes to Boston on March 29, then plays host to the Bruins on April 3, with another collision in the postseason a real possibility.
Brad Marchand leads Boston with 30 goals and 42 assists, but the Lightning have the league's top scorer in Nikita Kucherov, who has 34 goals and 57 assists.
The postseason may be more about defense and goaltending -- Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to lead the league with 40 wins, but has fallen out of the top 10 in save percentage and goals-against average. Boston's Tuukka Rask is ahead in both categories but has only 29 wins, while Vasilevskiy has faced concerns about overuse.
Tampa Bay is still integrating key elements acquired at the trade deadline into their lineup. J.T. Miller has nine points in seven games since he was acquired from the New York Rangers, and defenseman Ryan McDonagh has only played two games after returning from an upper-body injury. The Lightning hope to get forward Ondrej Palat back from his own extended absence to return to form before the postseason.
Boston has even more health issues, with Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy already sidelined and three key players -- Zdeno Chara, Krug and Jake DeBrusk -- injured on Tuesday. They won't be rushed back, so the team that the Lightning face Saturday won't be the same ones they might see in the playoffs.