The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning may have faced each other anyway in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, had the regular season played out and the usual divisional format for the playoffs been followed. This is a very different postseason, with teams matched by seeding after each round instead of by a bracket.
And yet, here they are. Exactly where the Atlantic Division rivals seemed destined to be.
Boston. Tampa Bay. The Eastern Conference Second Round, with the winner heading to the conference final.
“It is a measuring stick,” Bruins forward Brad Marchand said. “We all know the top teams in the League. There’s different tiers, basically. The teams that are left are in that top tier.
“These are the series that people want to see and these are the series that guys want to be part of and play in. This is what makes the Cup worth it — because you’ve got to play teams like Tampa.”
Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the hub city for the East, on Sunday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVAS).
The Bruins (44-14-12, .714 points percentage) and Lightning (43-21-6, .657) finished first and second in the conference during the regular season. The Lightning stayed at No. 2 after the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, but the Bruins fell to No. 4, which resulted in the rivalry resuming in the second round.
“I think it’s two teams that play with a lot of pride,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “You’re familiar with the style that they play, the intensity you know is going to be there, for sure, right from the start. So if you’re not prepared or ready for that physicalness, prepared to play at a high pace, you’re going to get exposed, both teams, both ways.”
They know, because it wasn’t that long ago that they were playing against each other in a game that looked like a preview of the postseason. Five months ago, less than a week before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, the teams played a game that led Lightning forward Pat Maroon to say, “I feel like we’re getting a little bad blood right now.”
And though they likely imagined that series would take place in April or May instead of August and September, the rivalry remains the same. The intensity remains the same.
Because the hits delivered in that game still reverberate.
“That game, specifically, felt like a playoff game,” Tampa Bay forward Barclay Goodrow said of the 5-3 win for the Lightning on March 7 in Boston. “The intensity was high. … I’m sure that’s what this whole series is going to be about.”
The Bruins and Lightning last faced each other in the playoffs two seasons ago, when Tampa Bay defeated a hobbled Boston team in a five-game series in the second round. They assumed they would play again in the second round last season, but the Lightning — who had 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most in NHL history — were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.
This season, the Lightning have had the better of the Bruins, though not by much. The Lightning won 4-3 in a shootout in Boston on Oct. 17, 3-2 at home in regulation Dec. 12, and had that 5-3 win on March 7, which was a one-goal game until an empty-net goal with 1:02 remaining in the third period sealed it. The Bruins won 2-1 in Tampa on March 3.
“I think rivalries, they come organically,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You never know who you’re going to have one with. When you play teams in playoffs in recent years, that seems to play into it. We played them a couple years ago. And then we’ve had some pretty intense games with them since, and usually they’re one-goal games and usually there’s some sort of fireworks that have happened in the game.”
Like that game March 7, when 26 penalties were called, including five misconducts.
“It’s two competitive teams,” Cooper said. “I think when two teams have been at the top of the standings, battling it out over the years, that’s what you get. If this series is anything like the last time we played them up in Boston, it should be a fun one.”
That seemed to be the sentiment. The games would be fun. The series would be intense.
The rivalry would be on.
“They’re a very good team,” Marchand said. “It’s going to be a fun series. It’s going to be very tough and it’s going to be difficult, but you go through this, you want to play good teams — and they’re a [heck] of a team.”