By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Boston Bruins rolled into Tampa on Tuesday night, fresh off a partial team field trip to Busch Gardens, with a chance to essentially cement their position in the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 spot with three games left to play. But instead of taking care of business and accomplishing what they needed to do, the Bruins were beaten. Badly.

The final scoreboard read 4-0, but really, it could have been worse. The Bruins allowed the Lightning to pepper Tuukka Rask with 17 shots in the first period, but managed to escape in a scoreless tie thanks in large part to some all-out effort (and a dose of luck) on a Patrice Bergeron blocked shot. The Bruins managed just eight shots for themselves in the opening 20 minutes, including zero on their lone power play.

After looking spectacular in the first period, Rask let in a soft goal — in Rask’s own words, “I donated them a goal there” — and the floodgates were opened. A 1-0 lead doubled for Tampa five minutes later, and a sloppy Boston line change allowed Tampa to make it 3-0 with 5:33 left in the second period.

Through 40 minutes, the Lightning led 3-0 on the scoreboard, and their 33-21 shot advantage was indicative of the type of dominance they were displaying. And that was without the services of Steven Stamkos, who was sitting out with a lower-body injury.

“It’s part of realizing you can’t take a night off, no matter what night it is and who you’re playing and what happened the night before,” said Bergeron, who was left waving helplessly at Nikita Kucherov in the neutral zone prior to the first Tampa goal. “You have to be at your best.”

The Lightning let off the gas pedal in the third, putting just three shots on net, the first of which was a roof job by J.T. Miller on a 2-on-1 rush early in the period. It quickly extinguished any hope from the Boston bench of one of those signature comebacks from happening.

It was, really, a complete beatdown at the hands of the Lightning, one that was no doubt inspired by Boston’s own bullying of the Bolts just last week in Boston. The Lightning blocked twice as many shots as the Bruins, were credited with 12 more hits (admittedly a faulty “statistic”), won 57 percent of the faceoffs, and essentially turned on the cruise control with 17 minutes left in a late-season game with heavy postseason implications. It was a thorough drubbing.

“They came and played playoff hockey,” Rask said. “We didn’t.”

That much is undeniable. And while no team would ever want to lose in such a fashion, it can undoubtedly be spun into a positive for this Bruins team. For one, the humbling came before the start of the playoffs, and with time left in the season to atone for the no-show. Secondarily, a lot of members of the Bruins roster who don’t have much playoff experience learned firsthand what it feels like to not bring the required level of energy and focus to a playoff-type of game against a very talented team.

At least, head coach Bruce Cassidy saw it that way.

“I thought a lot of our young guys got an education tonight on what it takes,” Cassidy said. “And I’m not putting this on them. I’m just telling you that the experience they gained tonight, understanding the urgency level, was very good for them in the long run. … I think they weren’t as sharp as they have been in the past, in terms of their compete and what to expect. So good for them to learn that, because that’s what they’re going to see next week. And they need to be able to play in those types of games if they expect to be in the lineup. So it’s not all bad for them to have to go through that.”

What Cassidy said there perfectly encapsulates how he’s managed the younger players on his roster all year long. He knows how to push them without alienating them, and he’s willing to sit them out for a night without banishing them for weeks. It’s a significant factor as to why the Bruins are still sitting atop the Eastern Conference.

Four players in Boston’s Tuesday lineup have zero games of playoff experience. Four more players have six or fewer games of playoff experience. After the trouncing on Tuesday, they can all basically tally a check mark in the playoff games played category.

And when it comes to finding a positive in Tuesday’s thumping, there is this: The Bruins are almost assuredly going to come out on Thursday night in Florida and play an aggressive, crisp, and dominant game against the Panthers, just as they did last Saturday in Boston. If they don’t, it will be a major upset.

The defining characteristic of these Bruins has been their ability to respond. Thursday presents a golden opportunity. The Panthers will be fighting for their playoff lives, but the Bruins will be looking to re-establish themselves. The Panthers may well be a playoff team, but the Bruins are looking to prove they’re worthy of that No. 1 spot in the conference.

In that quest, they still have plenty of opportunity to secure their spot. They’re tied in points with the Lightning, but have a game in hand. If they win their final three games — at Florida, then home against Ottawa and Florida — then the Bruins are the conference’s top seed. If they go 2-0-1, then they also clinch the spot. If they end up tied in standings points with Tampa, they’ll need to make up one regulation/overtime win this week, and they will then be the owners of the second tie-breaker. (The Lightning will play at home on Friday against Buffalo before traveling to Carolina on Saturday.)

If they want to go for that No. 1 seed (and the weaker first-round playoff opponent that accompanies it), they still can. But more importantly, the Bruins were brought back down to earth by a team they’re likely to meet in a seven-game series next month. In the process, they were given one more chance this regular season to prove that they’re capable of a response.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


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