By Drew Johnson
The Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have become bitter rivals ever since the NHL reformatted their divisions and conferences. Each conference was compressed from three divisions to two, and the Lightning joined Boston in the newly formed Atlantic Division.
Beyond their regular-season bouts over the years (which have always been entertaining), the two teams met in the playoffs in 2018. The Bolts took the second-round series 4-1.
While this was the only instance in which the Bruins and Lightning have met in the NHL’s second season since the reformation, the two teams’ regular-season matchups always seem to have significance.
The rivals have battled over the top spot in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference as a whole. In fact, in each of the past two seasons, the Lighting finished at the top of the conference while the Bruins finished in second. Nothing is set in stone, but this season it seems that there could be a shakeup with the B’s ahead of the Bolts by 6 points.
Along with the conference shakeup came a new playoff format. Instead of the classic 1-8 seeding (which pinned the No. 1 team in the conference against the No. 8 team, No. 2 against No. 7, and so on) the three top members of the division, along with a wildcard team, make up a smaller four-team playoff tree. This is mirrored by the three other divisions in the league.
Below is the classic 1-8 seeding from 2011. Notice the seeds along the sides. In this example, the No. 1 and No. 2 team in the Western Conference met in the Western Conference Final:
And here is the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff tree. Notice that teams are seeded within their division, along with Wild Card 1 and Wild Card 2:
While this format guarantees division rivals will face each other within the first two rounds, it does not allow the top two teams in the conference (at the end of the regular season) to meet in the Conference Final if they are in the same division. This means that if Boston finishes with a President’s Trophy win, the Lightning would need to fall to the second wild-card position for the two teams to meet in the Eastern Conference Final.
While the NHL playoffs are hard to predict, these two rivals are expected to meet this postseason regardless of the playoff format. However, it would be more appropriate for the two best teams in the conference to fight their way to the ECF before battling for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final. The blood in the Bruins and Lightning rivalry is already boiling, but imagine the kind of intensity we’d see if these two teams were to be duking it out in May or June instead of late April.