How the Bruins stuck a fork in the Lightning in the Atlantic Division race

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By WEEI 93.7

Get the Duck Boats ready, the Bruins are your 2019-20 Atlantic Division champions!

Just kidding. Of course around here division championships only inspire subtle celebrations because there are bigger prizes on the minds of the Bruins and every team in this town. And, oh by the way, the Bruins haven’t officially captured the Atlantic title, but they may as well have and it sure feels like they did.

In the first game they’ve had to play at a playoff temperature for several weeks, the Bruins ground down the Tampa Bay Lightning and hung on for a 2-1 road win Tuesday. Boston’s lead on the Lightning for first place is now nine points with 15 games to go, with Tampa Bay having played one fewer game.

Stick a fork in the Lightning.

If there was any doubt about the importance of this game, Brad Marchand wiped them away by missing the morning skate with an illness, taking an IV before the warmup, according to coach Bruce Cassidy, and then scoring the opening goal of the game.

Not bad for a game-time decision. -- @Bmarch63 | #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/UzIoFUidEx

— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) March 4, 2020

Marchand took an IV before warmups and made the decision to go, said Cassidy

— steve conroy (@conroyherald) March 4, 2020

Marchand, who played a season-low 14:36, missed a shift with about three minutes to go in regulation, but he was back on the ice for the game-closing shift, clearing the puck as the final seconds ticked down on the Lightning’s chances of winning another division title

Jake DeBrusk overcame his own sickness – call it goal-less disease – by scoring what wound up being the game-winner on a great effort and breakaway at 10:05 of the second. It was his 19th goal of the season, but his first in 11 games.

What a trip.@JDebrusk | #NHLBruins pic.twitter.com/uWjSaWccV5

— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) March 4, 2020

And Tuukka Rask was sharp with 20 saves, including a crucial stop on an Anthony Cirelli breakaway.

Rask with a big stop on Anthony Cirelli. pic.twitter.com/iDp7WZ41jO

— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) March 4, 2020

But this game was won with more than just goals and saves. It was won with a forecheck that gave the Lightning a preview of what they’ll face should they get past the first round this year. All four Boston lines were unrelenting, even the Duck Soup line of David Krejci centering former Anaheim Ducks Ondrej Kase and Brett Ritchie. When they weren’t pinning the Lightning in their own end, they were defending well. Kase was credited with two blocked shots, Ritchie with one (although he blocked at least three; scorekeeping is tough to focus on in Florida).

Truth is, the Bruins outshot the Lightning 31-14 through two periods and would’ve had an insurmountable lead had Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy not been in top form. Vasilevskiy allowed the Lightning to pull within one goal and then make a massive push in the middle part of the third period.

One could watch the Bruins hanging on for dear life during that stretch of the game and worry that the Bruins might not be able to handle Tampa Bay, especially if it gets Steven Stamkos back from injury, in May. For one night, though, the Bruins were able to bend but not break by getting key saves from Rask, some shot blocks and some strong defense to push the Lightning to the perimeter.

Eventually the Bruins demoralized the Lightning and got back to playing in the Tampa Bay zone, forcing coach Jon Cooper to leave Vasilevskiy in the crease until the final minute.

The Bruins gave their fans and the entire NHL a preview of what could be in store come this spring. And now they’re all but guaranteed to have at least two rounds of home-ice advantage to combine with their gutsy playoff-caliber play.

Aside from the rematch with Tampa Bay on Saturday at TD Garden and a visit to St. Louis in the last week of the regular season, the Bruins’ schedule hardly features any intimidating teams. Basically they needed to take two points out of their two games this week with the Lightning to wrap up the division title, and they’ve already done that. The conference title and Presidents' Trophy won't be far off.

For now, add another date to the Atlantic Division title banner, even if the Bruins are unlikely to give it much acknowledgement when it becomes official.

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