Lightning face big challenges from Toronto, Boston

Two of its fiercest divisional opponents bookend Tampa Bay’s early road trip
The Lightning and Mathieu Joseph hope to step up their play on this road trip, which includes top Atlantic Division contenders Toronto and Boston. Karl B DeBlaker  |  AP
The Lightning and Mathieu Joseph hope to step up their play on this road trip, which includes top Atlantic Division contenders Toronto and Boston. Karl B DeBlaker | AP
Published October 9
Updated October 9

BRANDON — The Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs have fought over the Atlantic Division’s top three spots since the 2016-17 season.

The Lightning aren’t in one of those spots today, but those teams again appear to be the division’s three best. And Tampa Bay will meet the other two on a road trip that starts tonight in Toronto and ends in Boston on Oct. 17.

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It’s a departure from last year, when the Lightning didn’t visit either team until Feb. 28.

“It’s good,” said Brayden Point, who is expected to make his season debut tonight after offseason hip surgery. “It gets you right into the year right away.”

Last year the Bruins and Maple Leafs gave the Lightning some of their toughest games. Tampa Bay won each season series 3-1, but the games were almost always hard fought.

The Maple Leafs outplayed the Lightning in December in a 4-1 Tampa Bay win that Andrei Vasilevskiy nearly single-handedly earned in his first game back from injury. Then in January the Maple Leafs beat the Lightning a tight game that ended 4-2 on an empty-netter.

This year the Leafs have started 2-1-1. Auston Matthews has five goals, and Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly have five points each.

Toronto and Tampa Bay often draw comparisons because each team has a deep pool of talent. The Maple Leafs’ top two lines are centered by Matthews and John Tavares, among the game’s top centers. The Lightning had the same 1-2 punch last season with Steven Stamkos and Point, but this year they are putting the two with Nikita Kucherov on one super line.

This season the Leafs added Tyson Barrie, a top-pair-caliber defenseman who plays on the second pair behind Rielly and Cody Ceci.

“Knowing what’s at stake, knowing this could be a potential playoff matchup,” Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said, “we want to be sure we’re setting the tone early.”

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The Bruins played the Lightning close in two of their losses last year. The season finale, the Lightning’s record-tying 62nd win, ended with a lopsided score, 6-3, that didn’t reflect the game’s nature. The Bruins completely outplayed the Lightning in recording their lone win, 4-1 in February.

This season, the Bruins have opened with three straight wins on the road and are in first place in the division. They gave up only one goal in their first two games before a 4-3 win over Vegas on Tuesday.

Boston’s top line has found its groove. Brad Marchand has four points, David Pastrnak has three and Patrice Bergeron two. So far the Bruins have shown they won’t beat themselves.

Anthony Cirelli called this trip a tough test for the Lightning. It’s one of the longest they’ll take this season with four games over nine days.

He likes getting some of these road games out of the way early, rather than piling on visits close together at the end of the season.

There’s another advantage to this timing. Stamkos figures that playing elite teams is the best way to wash away the “stinker” the Lightning played in losing to the Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime Sunday.

“There’s no better way to come off a bad game than to face a really good challenge,” he said.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.