By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — From the start of October through the middle of March, the Boston Bruins established themselves as the best team in the National Hockey League.

In the span of 120 minutes of ice hockey this week in Toronto, they’ve more or less thrown all of that away.

That’s perhaps a harsh assessment of the Bruins’ current predicament, but it’s nevertheless the case after they lost 3-2 to Tampa Bay on Wednesday afternoon. It was a game where the Bruins finally showed that they are indeed capable of playing with their style and aggressiveness, but that awakening kicked in too late and it fizzled out at the end, leaving them winless through two contests thus far.

Without the benefit of an 82-game schedule to offset the impact of a couple of  losses against good teams, the Bruins now find themselves in quite a hole with only one more round robin game left on the docket. The best they can end up with is the third seed, though that part is now out of their hands. It’s possible — likely, even — that the end up as a four seed.

For the Presidents’ Trophy winners, that’s not at all what the goal was when the team headed to Toronto with the aim of returning with the Stanley Cup in tow.

At the same time, if ever there was a year when seeding was far less important than most years, it would of course be 2020. And if the goal in the round robin portion of the restart is to rediscover an identity and flow, then the Bruins can at least take away the positive that they found that in the midst of Wednesday’s loss.

Surely, a 2-0 hole to one of the most dangerous teams in the NHL is an issue, and the Bruins’ start was not particularly inspiring. But the sequence of Torey Krug fighting to defend Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy uncorking a missile from the blue line, Tuukka Rask making some critical third-period stops, the fourth line contributing with a goal and drawing penalties, and the entire team playing with physicality and edge without losing their discipline, the Bruins for 20 or 30 minutes on Wednesday looked like the Bruins.

Alas, 20 to 30 good minutes doesn’t win playoff games. Certainly not against teams like the Lightning. As a result, their path to a Stanley Cup Final likely involves facing more difficult teams along the way.

The word “likely” is not minor there, though, because it’s difficult to properly assess teams at this unique moment in this unique season. The Bruins — who had eight more points than any other team in the conference and six more points than the best team in the West — are living proof that whatever happened in the regular season doesn’t really mean a whole lot here in August. Likewise, the 12th-seeded Canadiens (who didn’t really deserve an invite to the bubble) surprised Pittsburgh with a win to start their qualifying series.

Throw in the complete lack of home-ice advantage (outside of making last changes) for any team, and really, “upsets” these days aren’t quite what they used to be.

Nevertheless, winning hockey games still counts the same, and the Bruins have yet to do that.

Tuukka Rask said after Wednesday’s loss — in which he made 32 saves — that playing good hockey is far more important than worrying about the team’s exact place in the standings.

“I think so. I mean, I think if you want to make a run in the playoffs, you gotta beat every team anyways. So the situation is what it is,” Rask said. “I think the worst thing that’s gonna happen to us is we’re gonna lose the [Toronto Marlies] locker room in our practice rink. So that’s about it. I really don’t care where we finish, I think we just have to focus on our game. We’ll try to do that Sunday and then going into next week. But, yeah, you’ve gotta beat everybody anyways. Whatever.”

Head coach Bruce Cassidy shared a similar message, albeit with a more blunt assessment of the situation.

“Well that part sucks. I’m not gonna lie to ya,” Cassidy said. “But that’s the situation this year with the stoppage of play. We knew the rules going into it that we would lose a little bit of the advantage that we gained. But we are where we are now, and we’re just trying to win a hockey game right now and get our game together for 60 minutes so that we can be at our best [for] whoever we meet. This is one year I do believe the seeding is less relevant than others. I think everyone’s discussed that. Would I rather the number one seed? Absolutely. Keep it. That’s not going to happen. So, like I said, get ready for Washington, play the best game we can, and prepare for the postseason. That’s our ultimate goal. You’ve gotta win 16 games. We knew that going in. And that’ll still be our goal.”

They showed for roughly half of Wednesday’s game that they are capable of recapturing what it is that made them so dominant back before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19. They’ll need to work on turning that effort into a full 60 minutes if they hope to get their Toronto trip back on its intended track.

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

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