Tonight's match-up between the Lightning and the New York Islanders doesn't just begin the Lightning's last homestand before the Olympic break, but also a span of four of the next six games where the Bolts can either solidify their newfound position of seeded for the playoffs, or they can fall back into the mire of the Eastern Conference bottom dwellers.
The Bolts are indeed on the inside after their 2-1 victory over the Thrashers. The test before the Olympic Break is to stay there, though. With games against the Isles (two of them), Bruins and Rangers upcoming, the Bolts are in must-win or must-compete situations against other teams trying to establish a sound playoff foothold.
The back-to-back losses to Florida last month were damning for the Bolts playoff chase. To lose to the Isles twice in two weeks puts the Bolts in the same situation -- shooting themselves in the foot and empowering a team just three points behind them in the conference standings.
And the sideshow that must be mentioned: Nate Thompson faces off against his former team tonight for the first time since his waiving. In five games with the Lightning, Thompson is minus-1 and has nine shots on goal. He's been a sound addition to the Lightning for the most part, even if he has not made an offensive contribution yet.
On the other hand, since his waiving on January 20th, the Islanders are 1-5 during that stretch and have been outscored 20-8 combined in those six contests.
The Lightning power play is eighth in the NHL once again, with a 19.4% conversion rate. The Bolts penalty kill, however, still leaves somethign to be desired as the team is killing off only 79.7% of penalties, ranking them 25th in the NHL. Knowing the Lightning play stronger at home on both special team units, expect those percentages to increase tonight (well, if they don't find themselves stymied by the Islanders bi-polar goaltending corps).
But both numbers are a sight better than the Islanders special teams. The Isles are 28th in the league for both the power play (15.7%) and Penalty kill (75.1%).
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
(updated February 4, 2010 by Raw Charge - subject to change)
Antero Niittymaki (starter)