The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are providing Boston sports fans with the intense and bitter rivalry Boston sports fans were robbed of this summer thanks to the Boston Red Sox trading Mookie Betts and throwing away the 2020 season before it even started.
Nothing will ever match a Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry when both teams are at their best or when it comes to hockey, a Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens playoff battle. However, as the first two games of the Bruins-Tampa Bay lightning Eastern Conference semifinals series have proven, these two Atlantic Division teams have reached rivalry status and it’s only going to get better from here.
Prior to the Tampa Bay Lightning tying the series at one game apiece with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 2 Tuesday night, Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy had no problem calling Bruins-Lightning a rivalry.
“I do because to me, it’s the cream of the crop going at each other. I do consider it a rivalry,” Cassidy replied when asked if this matchup is a rivalry to him. “You’re always going to have the Original Six, that’s not going away anytime soon. But the modern-day – I looked at like with Boston and Pittsburgh earlier in the decade. They had some good matchups, good playoff matchups. Two good teams that were winning, top-end players.
Now we’ve kind of evolved over against Tampa Bay simply because they’re in our division and now we’re getting them in the playoffs a little more and both teams have had a certain level of success. I like the rivalry simply because it brings out the best in everybody. I have respect for their organization. I think both teams play hard and try to do it the right way. Yes, to answer your question, and I think it can only grow from here as well.”
Since the Lightning beat the Bruins in five games in the same round of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, the two teams have combined for the most regular season wins in the NHL with the Bruins racking up 92 wins and the Lightning a league-leading 116 victories. As the Lightning stormed through the 2018-19 regular season and won the President’s Trophy, the Bruins did their part as the second-best team in the Eastern Conference and it appeared inevitable that the Bruins and Lightning would meet in the playoffs again.
The Columbus Blue Jackets had other ideas though. The eighth-seeded Blue Jackets upset the Lightning in the first round while the Bruins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games en route to the Stanley Cup final where they fell to the St. Louis Blues in seven games.
“I assumed last year would be the year. I don’t think anyone saw the Columbus series coming,” Cassidy said prior to this series. “We assumed we’d get them in the second round. We took care of business, here we are the second round this year even though it’s a different format.”
Cassidy and the Bruins still haven’t forgotten the non-call that went against them in Game 4 of that 2018 series in Boston that the Lightning won in overtime and then clinched back in Tampa Bay in Game 5. Things might have gone differently or maybe they wouldn’t have, but here they are again going at it in the second round and Cassidy thinks the Bruins are a better team than they were then.
“At the end of the day, that series, as I said, I believe they were the better team over the course of that series,” he said last Saturday. “Having said that, it was a 2-1 game in-game for when I thought it was a call on McAvoy where he coughed up the puck and bang it’s in our net. I think that altered quite a bit. It could be 2-2 versus 3-1. Now, they do what they had to do in overtime to get the win and they closed us out. Full value to them. That break could have really propelled us.
At the end of the day, we’ve grown since then, I think we’re a better team. I believe I’ve had more playoff experience. Now it’s going to be two very evenly matched teams going at it. Each team is probably not 100% healthy but for the most part, we have strong lineups and are ready to go.”
There haven’t been any controversial goals yet thankfully. Instead, this series has come exactly as advertised through two games. The Lightning is out-shooting the Bruins 77-56 thus far but the two teams have both scored six goals apiece. As expected it’s been a bruising series as well with 166 hits combined through two games.
“It’s a tough series out there,” Bruins forward Sean Kuraly said. “I think they want to play heavy and fast and they’ve got the skill and I think we’ve got all the same things. It turns out to be two good teams going at it head to head. No one wants to go home and you’re kind of seeing the effects of that. Each team trying to play their game and usually whoever can play the most of their game ends up winning.”
During that 2018 series between these two budding rivals, former Bruins superstar Phil Esposito, who won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins en route to the hall of fame, but later founded and served as President and GM of the Lightning, made his allegiance clear to yours truly.
“I hate the bleeping Bruins and so do the players and all Lightning fans,” Esposito told me in the TD Garden press box.
Hate may not be the word on the ice now and with COVID19 restrictions, there’s been no licking between the Lightning and Bruins but the bitterness and respect is there. This is a heavyweight battle we are all likely to look back on when all is said and done. If you’re sick of watching the Red Sox play like the Bad News Bears while the Yankees rip it up, then tune into Game 3 tonight and a series that seems destined to go seven games.