TAMPA — This was supposed to be the "biggest game of the year," right?
In a measuring-stick matchup with the surging Bruins, the Lightning found out just how far it has to go if it has any plans of making a deep Stanley Cup run.
A Boston buzz saw stands in its way.
The shorthanded Bruins handed the first-place Lightning a humbling 3-0 loss Saturday in front of a very split St. Patrick's Day sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena.
Boston pulled within two points of the Atlantic Division lead, with a game in hand and two more head-to-head matchups left.
"It looked like one team preparing for the playoffs, and another team playing Game 71," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "That was the difference. We lost to the better team (Saturday)."
What's scary for the Lightning is the Bruins were better, even though they were missing two of their best defensemen in Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy, and MVP-candidate forward Patrice Bergeron.
Another top liner, David Backes, left with a leg laceration in the first period.
What happens when Boston is fully healthy?
The Lightning (48-19-4) had four days to get ready for this showdown, including two lengthy practices. But it was the Bruins who brought their A game, blocking 16 shots and winning 56 percent of the faceoffs.
And it was Tampa Bay, a veteran-laden team with lengthy playoff runs in its recent past, that played tight.
"Anxious," as captain Steven Stamkos put it. "Gripping our sticks."
Tampa Bay had 23 shot attempts miss the net, the first shot on goal coming nine minutes in.
With 11 games left, it appears the Lightning is still trying to regain some confidence.
"There's just been a lot of negativity around the team lately," Stamkos said. "We've just got to swing that and get some positive emotion in here, have some fun again. And that's when we play our best, when we make our plays, when we make the right decisions."
The Lightning is still 9-2-1 in its past 12 games. Where does the negativity come from?
"It's internal, external," Stamkos said. "That's the bizarre thing. You go 9-1-1 and we're getting asked about our defensive play. We're shown clips about our defensive play. We're harping on each other in this room about defensive play. I don't know if that's just a sign of a team that's hungry to want to get better, but at the end of the day, when you go 9-1-1 in this league, you should have the confidence and feel good about your game."
But the Lightning hasn't felt good about its game lately, even after winning all those overtimes and shootouts. It was finding ways to win, just not the right formula.
"The mood wasn't typical of a mood of a team that was 9-0-1," wing Alex Killorn said.
"You can't be happy with winning 5-4 or 6-7," Stralman said. "That's not the hockey you want to play. You take the two points, but at the same time you can't really enjoy it and feel good about it because you know that's not going to take you very far going into the postseason."
The Lightning's penalty kill problems continued, giving up two power play goals. And then Stralman said the Bruins did what the Lightning can't, shut it down in the third.
"By no means are we hitting the panic button," Stamkos said. "But we just need more positivity and need some more urgency and getting off to the right start, especially in big games like this."
Said Stralman: "It was a good test, and we got outplayed. Now we have to raise the bar."