Lightning blast Bruins, Atlantic race heats up

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The Boston Bruins have been skyrocketing up the ranks while the Tampa Bay Lightning have been sagging with the finish line in view, to the point that Boston seemed likely to win the Atlantic Division.

Tonight injected some serious doubt into that situation.

Tampa Bay took charge of the game virtually from the time the puck dropped, ultimately cruising to a 4-0 win against Boston. The Bolts generated an impressive 33 shots on goal through the first two periods. While Tuukka Rask was able to hold off their bids in the opening frame, the Lightning made quick work of this one by rattling off a 3-0 deficit in the second period.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Now, just like that, a healthy Bruins lead for the division title is now rail-thin:

Bruins: 49-18-12, 110 points with three games remaining, 46 ROW
Lightning: 53-23-4, 110 points with two games left, 47 ROW

This outcome could be significant for the Florida Panthers, who face the Bruins twice. Here’s the final three games for Boston:

Thu, Apr 5 @ Florida
Sat, Apr 7 vs Ottawa
Sun, Apr 8 vs Florida

The Lightning, meanwhile, face two teams eyeing vacations, the draft lottery, and other off-season considerations. They host the Sabres in Tampa Bay on Friday and then take on the Hurricanes on Saturday.

You’d have to give the Bruins the edge down the stretch thanks to the advantage of having a game in hand. Still, they might face a tougher run if Florida has something to play for, especially if the Cats improbably give themselves a chance to earn a playoff spot during that make-up game on Sunday.

Even if the Lightning finish second in the Atlantic and draw a tough opponent in the Toronto Maple Leafs, this could be the sort of game that gets them back on track. They came into tonight’s game having lost four of their last five games and dropping six of their last 10, with Andrei Vasilevskiy admitting some fatigue.

(Vasilevskiy made some big early saves to earn his eighth shutout of the season, moving into a tie with Pekka Rinne for the NHL lead.)

The Lightning could have kept sinking, especially with Steven Stamkos out of the lineup nursing what’s allegedly a minor injury. Instead, the Lightning flexed their muscles in a way that’s heartening, and also gives them a very real chance at winning the Atlantic.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.