DALLAS – Claude Julien said in a perfect world the Bruins would have a 10-point cushion on the rest of the competition in the Atlantic Division.
Julien’s divisional utopia would probably be something like two years ago when the B’s won the division by a 10-point margin over second-place Ottawa in the NHL’s last 82-game regular season. The Bruins won the division by a comfortable seven points over Montreal three years ago before they went on to win the Stanley Cup.
So, the Bruins are accustomed to being comfortable atop the division. But the B’s are suddenly getting pushed by the competition under the new realignment in the Atlantic Division.
“If you asked me my opinion, I’d rather be ten points ahead of [the Lightning],” said Julien. “But it is what it is. You just battle and keep battling. The season is such a long season that you’ve got to ride the wave. When a team puts all of their eggs in one basket and needs to finish first overall for all the wrong reasons, then they don’t have what it takes at the end of the year.
“We just need to stay the course and continue to be one of the top teams. I’m not going to stay that we don’t want to finish first because we certainly do. But I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on my team and say ‘listen, we need to stay ahead of Tampa here.’ They see it. We all see it. If we look after our game then the standings will take care of themselves.”
While the Bruins are in a funk where they’ve lost five of their last eight games with special teams’ breakdowns and uncharacteristic mistakes in the defensive zone, the Tampa Bay Lightning just keep on winning.
While the Bruins were busy losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs in regulation on Tuesday night, the Bolts took care of business against the New York Rangers to move into a tie for first place in the Atlantic Division. Boston and Tampa both have 60 points while the Bruins hold one game in hand, but it’s been a slow, steady rise back to the top for the Lightning after losing Steve Stamkos one month into the season.
The Bruins clearly had a sense of urgency after getting their helmets handed to them on the West Coast by the California teams, but it’s been upped to a higher level now. It’s amazing how that happens when a team like the Lightning starts breathing down their collective necks in the Atlantic Division.
“I think we’re at a point in the season that no matter if it’s a team right behind us or a team battling for a playoff spot, it’s going to be tough games,” said Tuukka Rask. “Everybody is pushing you to the limit, but it’s a good thing. [Tampa] is keeping us on our toes knowing that we have to improve that consistency going into the postseason.”
The Lightning superstar was injured on Nov. 11 when he gruesomely snapped his leg crashing into a TD Garden goalpost. Everyone in the hockey community assumed the Bolts were going to fall apart using simple common sense as their guide.
Still, strange things can happen in sports. Instead of folding up like Blake Wheeler with a big hit coming, the Lightning have gone 16-10-4 in their past 30 games without Stamkos. Tampa will probably make the playoffs after hanging in there over the last few months, and it’s due largely to the way they played when their goal-scoring stud was wheeled off the Boston ice on a stretcher while howling in pain.
Clearly Ben Bishop has been one of the stories of the season as he’s become a legitimate franchise goaltender for the Lightning, and Victor Hedman leads an improved defensemen corps for the Bolts. Marty St. Louis has been great, and Valtteri Filppula looks like one of the best bargain signings of the summer.
Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and Radko Gudas have been young players that have made a huge impact on the Lightning given the chances opened up to them by Tampa coach Jon Cooper.
Everybody has pulled their weight in Tampa, and now they’re looking like a formidable team in the second half of the season once they’ve got Stamkos back teeing off from the face-off dot.
Perhaps the Bruins could take a lesson from the Lightning that things will get better while they struggle along right now without Dennis Seidenberg. Count Julien among those that feel the Bruins would be scuffling defensively and special teams-wise with or without their German tank.
“There’s a lot more to our losses than just one guy. I think we all know that,” said Julien. “We just need to tighten things up a little bit. It’s okay to lose a guy like Seidenberg, and say that you lost a big piece.
“But when you look at the goals getting scored, it’s a lot of the same guys [on the ice] that were around killing penalties when Seidenberg was here too.”
Time will tell if Julien is correct, or if the Seidenberg injury was one of those regular season body blows that a hockey team simply can’t recover from if they hope to win the Cup.
Clearly, this isn’t the Bruins first rodeo.
There won’t be any panic among a seasoned Bruins bunch just because they have worthy divisional competition amid some dog day struggles in January. Nor should there be for a playoff-hardened bunch that worries about peaking in May and June rather than January.
The B’s will snap out of their 0-for-16 stretch on the power play, and the penalty kill will stabilize itself given the track record and personnel that have done it for too long not to bounce back.
But there’s no guarantee the Black and Gold win the division for the fourth time in the last five years given the surprising way Tampa Bay has kept pace with them in a trying campaign for both teams.
The Lightning are for real and aren’t going anywhere as they keep pushing a Bruins team that’s dominated them in head-to-head competition this season.