BOSTON — Games with Tampa Bay aren't usually the ones circled on the calendar — it's the games against Montreal and Philadelphia that usually elicit that kind of anticipation — but Thursday's clash with the Lightning should be up there in importance with any of the regular-season games the Bruins have played of late.
Boston and Tampa Bay come into this matchup with identical 37-19-7 records, and the winner will take over sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference.
"It's obviously an important game with where the standings are," Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid said after Boston's morning skate on Thursday. "The main thing for us is to focus on coming out with the same effort we've had lately. If we continue the way things are going, we give ourselves the best chance to win. We're not worried too, too much about putting pressure on ourselves that we can move ahead, but we know that's the case and hopefully we can come out with a good enough effort that will be the case at the end of the night."
The Bruins make their first appearance on TD Garden ice in more than two weeks in this one, but they come in as arguably the hottest team in the league after a perfect 6-0-0 road trip. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, had just an optional skate in the morning after dropping a 2-1 decision in New Jersey Wednesday night.
Neither that loss nor the 8-1 thumping the Bruins put on the Lightning the last time they visited back on Dec. 2 has the Bruins taking Tampa Bay lightly in this matchup.
"They're still a really explosive offensive team," Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said, and they've added some missing pieces that make them defensively stronger. But for us, it's the same game plan, getting pucks deep and putting pressure on the forecheck. In the defensive zone, it's just staying tight and not giving their skill guys a lot of time or room to make plays."
The latter is especially important against an offense led by Steven Stamkos (41-37-78) and Martin St. Louis (24-51-75), who are second and third in the league in scoring, respectively.
"They obviously have a lot of skill, a few guys that are up there at the top of league points-wise," McQuaid said. "They're very dangerous when you give them opportunities, so the biggest thing is to limit their opportunities. They're going create things out there, they're that good a players, but you just try to limit it as much as possible to have a better chance to keep them off the scoresheet."
Tim Thomas was the first goalie off the ice for the Bruins at the skate, so he is expected to draw the challenge of stopping that Tampa offense after Tuukka Rask played the final two games of the road trip in Edmonton and Ottawa.
Tampa will counter with Mike Smith, last seen here giving up five goals on 22 shots before being pulled in that 8-1 loss. That included one from outside the blue line by Seidenberg, who faked a dump-in to the corner, then fired into the open net as Smith left the crease anticipating the puck coming in around the boards.
The Lightning will be without one of their key offensive weapons, as Vincent Lecavalier is out with a mid-body injury. Tampa is already missing forward Ryan Malone (abdominal) and defensemen Mike Lundin (abdominal) and Marc-Andre Bergeron (back). The Lightning are likely to play seven defensemen and just 11 forwards without Lecavalier.
The Bruins don't have to make any lineup changes, with Daniel Paille likely to be the healthy scratch again up front, though it's possible Tyler Seguin could be the odd man out as he was one of the last players off the ice at the skate. Andrew Ference (lower body) will remain out on defense.
"He got examined [Wednesday] by our doctors and things are going extremely well for him," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Ference. "We hope to see him back on the ice the beginning of next week. That could be as early as Sunday if things keep going well."
Recently signed defenseman Shane Hnidy also remains out, as he has not been cleared for full contact while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Projected Bruins lines
Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi
Rich Peverley-Chris Kelly-Michael Ryder
Shawn Thornton-Tyler Seguin-Greg Campbell
Zdeno Chara-Johnny Boychuk
Tomas Kaberle-Dennis Seidenberg
Steven Kampfer-Adam McQuaid
Scratches: Daniel Paille, Andrew Ference (lower body), Shane Hnidy (shoulder)
Projected Lightning lines
Marty St. Louis-Steven Stamkos-Steve Downie
Simon Gagne-Dominic Moore-Teddy Purcell.
Sean Bergenheim-Mattias Ritola-Adam Hall
Nate Thompson-Dana Tyrell
Victor Hedman-Brett Clark
Mattias Ohlund-Eric Brewer
Randy Jones-Pavel Kubina
Scratches: Vinny Lecavalier (mid-body), Marc-Andre Bergeron (back), Mike Lundin (abdominal)