The Boston Bruins are sitting atop the NHL standings as the league's best team with 16 games remaining in their regular season, and they have a big test in the Sunshine State on Tuesday.
Boston (41-13-12, 94 points) will need high-scoring right wing David Pastrnak to be on top of his game it travels to face the Tampa Bay Lightning, who own the Eastern Conference's second-best record (41-19-5, 87 points) and have had their share of highs and lows over the last few weeks.
The 23-year-old Pastrnak was named the league's Third Star of the Month for February on Sunday. He led the Bruins and was tied for fourth in the NHL in scoring -- totaling 19 points (10 goals, nine assists) -- as his club posted an 11-3-0 mark.
It is the third meeting this season between the Atlantic Division leaders, the second in downtown Tampa at Amalie Arena.
Boston has been perched at the top of the division since the outset, riding a 20-3-5 start to the season that carried the Bruins into early December.
Boston's defensive play led to offensive output in Saturday's 4-0 road win over the New York Islanders.
"When you play solid defensively, you get more chances offensively not only for us, but for the forwards," said Bruins defenseman Torey Krug. "You get the puck in the right spot and you push it up to the forwards, and then you're able to be the second wave of attack."
Meanwhile, the Lightning -- last season's Presidents' Trophy winners -- left the gate slowly and slipped to a 14-11-3 mark after a 5-1 home loss against the New York Islanders on Dec. 9. Tampa Bay regained last year's form by using lengthy winning and point streaks, mainly on home ice.
Tampa Bay's Saturday opened with bad news but closed with a 4-3 matinee win over the visiting Calgary Flames.
The organization announced before the contest that Steven Stamkos, the club's captain and top center, would have surgery Monday on a core muscle and will be sidelined for six to eight weeks.
The timeline has Stamkos, 30, rehabbing into the beginning of April and possibly returning during the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"You are not going to replace him, he's one of the best in the world at what he does, so we're taking some goals out of the lineup for us, and it's up to us as coaches to put guys in positions where they could succeed," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after beating Calgary. "Tonight was a good step in that regard, but we just have to keep plugging away here until he gets back."
The second-place Lightning are 2-0-0 against the Bruins, and Stamkos decided the outcome in both matches.
They won Oct. 17 in Boston behind goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's four shootout saves and Stamkos' game-winner -- the only goal in the extra session -- in a 4-3 win. Tampa Bay notched the other victory at home on Dec. 12 when the Markham, Ontario, native tallied twice, including another winning goal, in a 3-2 win.
--Field Level Media