Top Shelf: Surging B's face big test

Philadelphia, PA ( - The Boston Bruins started last season strong only to disappoint at the end with a second-round playoff exit at the hands of the hated Montreal Canadiens.

Claude Julien's club is hoping to do the opposite in 2014-15, a season that has been characterized by inconsistency, injuries and problems caused by a salary cap crunch.

Until recently, it was easy to forget the Bruins entered this season as the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners and a favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Lately, however, it seems Boston is trying to get our attention and remind us what makes the Bruins an intriguing choice to win it all when the chase for the Cup culminates later in 2015.

Tuesday evening in Boston, the boys from Beantown will get a chance to see if the progress they have made of late is the sign of even better things to come, or if there is still more work to be done. The Bruins will host the Atlantic Division leaders and they'll carry some momentum into the showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Boston enters the divisional battle on a three-game winning streak and also has managed to record a point in nine of its last 10 outings, sporting a 6-1-3 mark over the stretch.

Although the Bruins have improved enough to get themselves into a playoff spot at the moment, the club hasn't given up on winning the division title. Winning Tuesday's clash at TD Garden would be a good step toward achieving the goal, but with eight points still separating the Bruins and Lightning, it's going to take more than one victory to win the Atlantic.

However, the meeting could serve as a message game for Boston, particularly if it goes the way recent encounters between the B's and Bolts have gone. After all, Tuesday's tilt only marks the first of four scheduled meetings between the clubs during the 2014-15 season, giving Boston ample opportunities to make up ground on the division leaders between now and the end of the regular season.

The fact that the final three meetings in 2014-15 will take place from March 12-April 11 means Tuesday's encounter is a tone setter for the entire season series. For the Bruins, it offers a chance to reintroduce themselves to the Lightning, a team that hasn't been competitive in the recent history of this series.

The Bruins have taken eight straight from Tampa both overall and at home and the Lightning have been outscored 30-8 while losing their last eight trips to "The Hub." That's an awful lot of bad history for the Lightning to get over, and Boston hopes it can plant a seed of doubt by extending Tampa's miserable record in this series.

The Bolts also lost a 7-3 decision Monday in Philadelphia, getting routed by a Flyers team which normally has trouble beating teams ahead of them in the standings. That was clearly not the case this time. Philly ran the Lighting out of the Wells Fargo Center despite there being a 19-point gap between the clubs in the standings before the puck dropped.

Prior to the lopsided setback against the Flyers, Tampa Bay was being hailed in recent weeks as the East's top team. With the Lightning knocked down one peg in Philadelphia, the Bruins hope to further tarnish Tampa's reputation by continuing their dominance in this series.

It probably isn't going to help the Lightning that neither star defenseman Victor Hedman nor leading scorer Tyler Johnson are expected to play tonight after getting injured in Monday's game. Hedman's absence could be particularly noticeable, as the big and talented physical defenseman is one of the few guys in the world worthy of garnering comparisons to Boston star blueliner Zdeno Chara.

One complaint consistently hurled at the NHL is the regular season is too long and doesn't really matter. The critique works when you cherry pick certain matchups throughout the season, but it's pretty clear a game like Tuesday's clash at the Garden is not one that can be dismissed as merely one part of an 82-game slog.

There simply is too much for both the Bruins and Lightning to prove for this one to be a dud.

On the practical side, Boston simply needs the points to get where it wants to go. You can bet the B's also are tired of hearing how Tampa is the class of the East when only months ago it was Boston which was most commonly being singled out for that distinction.

The Lightning, meanwhile, are the classic case of a young, talented team trying to get over the hump against a rival which was owned the recent battles between the clubs.

In boxing, they say styles make fights. This one pits the speed and offensive talent of Tampa Bay against the physical play and defensive prowess of Julien's Bruins.

It's obvious Boston has dictated the pace in recent encounters, but in light of the ups and downs the club has faced in 2014-15, this is a chance for the B's to prove themselves all over. If they are able to impose their will on Tampa once again, then the spotlight will shift ever so slightly to the Boston side until the clubs meet again.

"We know the importance of this game ... for both teams," Julien said. "A big challenge for us, and probably a big challenge for them."