By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — If sports were simple, then we’d all be sitting here right now saying that the Tampa Bay Lightning will assuredly make quick work of the Boston Bruins in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. After all, the Lightning are a much better team than the Maple Leafs, aren’t they? And the Maple Leafs just pushed the Bruins to the brink in Game 7, didn’t they? So if 1 + 1 = 2, then we can all plan for a tidy four- or five-game series win for Tampa Bay, yes?

But, well, sports aren’t simple. Sports often don’t make too much sense, especially sports that are played on a sheet of ice using a rubber puck on an enclosed space where sticks and legs are everywhere. Truly anything can happen in this wacky sport, so there’s no way of knowing how the forthcoming Bruins-Lightning series will play out once it begins on Saturday afternoon.

And while on paper the Lightning appear to be a deeper and more talented team than the Leafs, the fact is that the Bruins managed to find more success against Tampa this season than they did against Toronto. With that in mind, here’s a look back at the four games between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, each one perhaps offering a sign of things to come over the coming weeks.

Nov. 29, 2017, TD Garden, Boston
Bruins 3, Lightning 2

riley nash What Can Be Learned From Bruins Four Meetings With Lightning?

Bruins forward Riley Nash reacts after scoring a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Goals
Andrej Sustr, from Braydon Coburn, Chris Kunitz
Steven Stamkos (PP), from Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Sergachev

Boston Goals
Charlie McAvoy, from David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand
Riley Nash, from Danton Heinen, Brad Marchand
Torey Krug, from Ryan Spooner, Charlie McAvoy

Boston Goaltending
Tuukka Rask: 19 saves on 21 shots

Tampa Bay Goaltending
Andrei Vasilevskiy 33 saves on 36 shots

Power Play
Tampa Bay: 1/2 (50%)
Boston: 0/2 (0%)

This game took place just as the Bruins were on the verge of transforming from a middle-of-the-road, .500 type of team into the Cup contender they became. They entered the night with a 10-8-4 record, while the Lightning were 17-5-2. But Charlie McAvoy scored just after the first TV timeout in the opening period, and Riley Nash doubled the Bruins’ lead before first intermission. Torey Krug made it 3-0 in the second, and Tuukka Rask and the Bruins’ defense did enough to fend off the Lightning from there on out.

McAvoy’s goal was initially waved off for goaltender interference, but Brad Marchand’s net-front screen was clean, and the call was overturned. Nash’s goal was a pure snipe, and Krug’s was a one-time missile from the faceoff dot after some sloppy puck management by Tampa in 4-on-4 play.

Sustr’s goal somehow found its way through four bodies standing in front of Rask, while Stamkos’ power-play one-timer was the end result of some masterful puck movement by the Tampa power play unit. (The Lightning ranked third in the NHL in power play percentage this season.)

Rask came up with a big save in the final minutes of a one-goal game, adjusting to a redirect and then clearing the rebound to the corner to preserve the lead.

Marchand took an embellishment penalty …

… and fists were flying after Cedric Paquette boarded Krug behind the Boston net. Frank Vatrano made a beeline for Paquette, and there was a bit of a scrum in the Boston zone early in the second period.

March 17, 2018, Amalie Arena, Tampa
Bruins 3, Lightning 0

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The Bruins celebrate David Backes’ power play goal against Tampa Bay. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Boston Goals
David Pastrnak, from Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid
David Backes (PP), from Torey Krug, Brad Marchand
Riley Nash (PP), from Rick Nash, Torey Krug

Tampa Bay Goals

Boston Goaltending
Tuukka Rask: 23 saves on 23 shots

Tampa Bay Goaltending
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 24 saves on 27 shots

Power Play
Boston: 2/3 (66.7%)
Tampa Bay: 0/3 (0%)

The Bruins were in a much different place when they finally met the Lightning again on St. Patrick’s Day, owners of a 44-17-8 record when they headed to Tampa for this Saturday night matchup. The Bruins dominated on the scoreboard, thanks to Rask’s third shutout of the season and the team’s dedication to blocking 16 Tampa shots.

The Bruins were without Patrice Bergeron in this game, but David Krejci picked up the slack in the faceoff dot, winning nine of his 11 draws.

Paquette was once again involved in some notable physical play, as he delivered a hit to Rick Nash that at the time went largely unnoticed but ended up putting an end to the veteran forward’s regular season. Nash would miss the Bruins’ remaining 12 games due to a concussion suffered on the hit.

Pastrnak scored just 3:07 into the game after taking a feed at full speed from Krug while darting to the net. Pastrnak calmly controlled the puck, waited for Vasilevskiy to go down, and fit a backhand around the netminder’s extended right leg. David Backes’ goal was a typical Backes goal, as he was in position to bury a rebound off the end boards following a Krug shot just 10 seconds into a power play. (Rick Nash didn’t get an assist on the goal, but it never would have been scored if Nash hadn’t lifted Ryan McDonagh’s stick.) And Riley Nash scored just nine seconds into a power play, as he cleaned up a rebound which Vasilevskiy had coughed up in front of the net.

March 29, 2018, TD Garden, Boston
Bruins 4, Lightning 2

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A ref keeps Tuukka Rask out of a fracas between the Bruins and Lightning. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Goals
J.T. Miller (PP), from Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman, from Yanni Gourde, Dan Girardi

Boston Goals
Tim Schaller, from Tommy Wingels
David Pastrnak (PP), from Torey Krug, Patrice Bergeron
Patrice Bergeron, from Torey Krug, Brad Marchand
Brad Marchand (EN), from Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak

Tampa Bay Goaltending
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 26 saves on 29 shots

Boston Goaltending
Tuukka Rask: 26 saves on 28 shots

Power Play
Tampa Bay: 1/4 (25%)
Boston: 1/3 (33%)

With this win, the Bruins overtook the Lightning for first place in the East. That positioning would not last long, but it was indicative of how far the Bruins had come since their slow start to the year.

The game was scoreless for much of the first period, but Tim Schaller and David Pastrnak each scored in the final minute of the first to completely change the shape of the game before first intermission. The Bruins outshot the Lightning 17-6 over those first 20 minutes. Pastrnak’s goal came just five seconds into a power play, continuing a trend from the teams’ meeting 12 days prior.

The first goal was the result of a strong net drive by Schaller, but also sloppy goaltending from Vasilevskiy, who let a Tommy Wingels shot linger near his skates as Schaller was wrestling with McDonagh while skating toward the crease. Pastrnak’s goal managed to avoid both Bergeron and Ryan Donato in front, instead deflecting off McDonagh’s stick and past Vasilevskiy.

J.T. Miller’s power-play goal was the lone score of the second, coming once again after some brilliant puck movement on the power play. It wasn’t until Patrice Bergeron scored nearly 12 minutes into the third period that the Bruins could feel comfortable with their lead. That was a goal that was arguably one of the best of the year for the Bruins:

Bergeron’s “Oh my God” response to that one was appropriate.

Victor Hedman scored a goal just two minutes later (giving up goals shortly after scoring goals of their own was a problem for the Bruins in the first round vs. Toronto) on perhaps the softest goal Rask allowed all season. So things tensed up once again until the Bruins got an empty-netter from Marchand to seal the win.

That Hedman goal didn’t spoil the night for Rask, who was excellent and made some spectacular saves … and also started a fight in his crease.

It was one of the best games for the Bruins all year … though it might have woken up the Lightning.

April 3, 2018, Amalie Arena, Tampa
Lightning 4, Bruins 0

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The Lightning celebrate Ryan Callahan’s goal against Tuukka Rask. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

Boston Goals

Tampa Bay Goals
Brayden Point, from Nikita Kucherov, Braydon Coburn
Victor Hedman, from Braydon Coburn, Ryan Callahan
Chris Kunitz, from Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi
J.T. Miller (unassisted)

Boston Goaltending
Tuukka Rask: 32 saves on 36 shots

Tampa Bay Goaltending
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 33 saves on 33 shots

Power Play
Boston: 0/2 (0%)
Tampa Bay: 0/4 (0%)

The Bruins went on an unbelievable run from December through March, but they perhaps ran out of gas a bit in April. Meanwhile the Lightning likely felt they had a lot of improvements to make at the end of the regular season, as they entered this one losers of six of their last 10 games.

Suffice it to say, they made their statement that they were sick of losing to their divisional foe.

The teams were tied through the first 25 minutes of play, before Rask let in a pretty bad goal from Brayden Point. Cedric Paquette provided a perfect screen for a Victor Hedman goal later in the second, before Chris Kunitz became the beneficiary of a bad line change by Boston that led directly to a Tampa scoring chance. J.T. Miller extinguished any hope Boston might have had of making a comeback when he picked a corner while flying into the Boston zone on a 2-on-1 early in the third.

The Bruins’ best opportunity came on a strong individual effort from Marchand, but Vasilevskiy handled it well. Pastrnak probably wouldn’t have minded getting a penalty call when he was hauled down by Mikhail Sergachev while on a partial breakaway early in the second. But the chances were just that — chances. Vasilevskiy recorded his eight shutout of the season.

Looking back, the Bruins would have been able to secure home-ice advantage had they just been able to win one more game during the regular season. Instead, they lost this game to Tampa and then lost two of their final three games. As a result, the Bruins now have to play a whole lot better in their return trip to Tampa. This time, there’s a lot more than positioning in the standings that’s on the line.

Boston Leading Scorers
Torey Krug: 1-5-6
Brad Marchand: 1-4-5
David Pastrnak: 2-2-4

Tampa Bay Leading Scorers
Victor Hedman: 3-0-0
Nikita Kucherov: 0-3-3
Braydon Coburn: 0-3-3

Power Play
Boston: 3/10 (30%)
Tampa Bay: 2/13 (15%)

Boston Goaltending
Tuukka Rask: 3-1-0, .926 save percentage, 2.28 GAA, 1 shutout

Tampa Bay Goaltending
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 1-3-0, .928 save percentage, 2.30 GAA, 1 shutout

Bruins-Lightning Playoff Schedule
Game 1: Saturday, April 28, 3 p.m., in Tampa
Game 2: Monday, April 30, 7 p.m., in Tampa
Game 3: Wednesday, May 2, 7 p.m., in Boston
Game 4: Friday, May 4, 7 p.m., in Boston
Game 5 (if necessary): Sunday, May 6, Time TBD, in Tampa
Game 6 (if necessary): Tuesday, May 8, Time TBD, in Boston
Game 7 (if necessary): Thursday, May 10, Time TBD, in Tampa

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


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