Win over Islanders kicks off Bruins’ crucial 16-game tune-up for Stanley Cup playoffs

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By basically wrapping up the Atlantic Division title by February and the Presidents’ Trophy by March last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning clearly lost their edge prior to losing in four straight games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.

With that in mind, the Bruins entered the final 16-game segment of the regular season with a seven-point lead on the second place Lightning. Once it looked like the Bruins would be in a similar position to what the Lightning went through by this time this season, but the expected market corrections brought the Bruins back a little closer to the pack.

The Bruins are one of about half a dozen members of the group that could be considered the NHL’s “elite teams” and could easily be looking too far ahead to the playoffs. But there’s plenty still left to play for, and with their 4-0 win at the New York Islanders on Saturday, the Bruins showed that they’re focused on getting their playoff style squared away rather than attempting to coast to the postseason Lightning style. (Tampa Bay went 12-4 in its last 16 games, but 3-3 in its last six and allowed four or more goals six times in its last 16 games.)

Charlie McAvoy had a three-point game (one goal, two assists), Tuukka Rask made 25 saves for his fourth shutout of the season, and the Bruins’ penalty kill went 6-for-6 on Long Island. Although all three of Boston’s even-strength goals were scored with the first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak on the ice, coach Bruce Cassidy was able to fairly distribute ice time and all four lines had their moments of extending attacking-zone time.

It was a clinic in playing postseason hockey put on by the Bruins in a game against a potential first-round opponent, the wild-card Islanders. In extending their lead over the Lightning to nine points (with Tampa Bay having played two fewer games, including a late-Saturday-afternoon matinee against Calgary), the Bruins also were able to gain a mental edge on a possible first-round foe. Boston has now won 10 straight road games against the Long Island/Brooklyn dwellers.

The upcoming schedule features games against Toronto (two), Florida (two), Tampa Bay (2), Columbus, Carolina (2) and Philadelphia, all teams the Bruins have a chance to meet in the first or second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. (And it should be noted that Saturday news broke of Steven Stamkos being out of the Lightning lineup for six to eight weeks after core surgery.).

#TBLightning captain Steven Stamkos will undergo a surgical procedure on Monday, March 2 to repair a core muscle injury.Recovery and rehabilitation are anticipated to last approximately six to eight weeks.https://t.co/UzfkHwdJhs

— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) February 29, 2020

The more the Bruins can do to demoralize those teams head-to-head in the regular season increases the potential those teams will already be mentally behind the eight ball at the start of a playoff series.

Then there’s the matter of home-ice advantage. Sure, the Bruins famously lost three home games in losing to St. Louis in the Stanley Cup final. But home-ice helped them win against Toronto each of the past two years, and helped them get the early lead on Carolina on the way to a sweep in last year’s conference final. Whether the Bruins are taking on the Maple Leafs again, the Lightning, the Washington Capitals or even the Blues again, they want to be in front of the friendly crowd.

Really, the only games the Bruins have against fellow “elites” are the two with the Lightning and one in the last road game of the season at St. Louis. It’d be easy for them to come off the gas a little bit, but it appears they understand how important it is to tune up rather than tune out. Maybe the most challenging stretch of games will be the five in a row they have against the three California teams on the road, followed by home dates with Detroit and Ottawa. Helping those teams improve their lottery odds might be less motivating for the Bruins than getting a leg up on possible playoff opponents or gunning for home-ice advantage.

Considering how the Bruins’ leadership and coaching staff continually get the team to play 90 percent of its games like they’re special, there’s not likely to be much of a lull in this stretch run. And that should translate to some momentum heading into the postseason, keeping a Tampa Bay-like postseason collapse as an unlikely occurrence.

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