The Lightning and the Florida Panthers are tied for second place in the Southeast Division with 14 points a piece. The Cats have a game in hand... By the end of the month, the division rivals will have played five of six contests for the entire season.
Yeah, that's correct. Later this month, the Bolts and Cats will play a home-and-home, back-to-back series at BankAtlantic Center and Times Palace... And the season series concludes on February 4th.
That's not exactly a way to build a rivalry. And we know the NHL is all about rivalries. That's what keeps certain teams groups together. The idea of them being apart and changing "tradition" is unthinkable!.
For a league that changes rules on a whim and always gets swayed by the court of public opinion, "tradition" is subjective at best, and a demand of the Board of Governors wants at worst.
So what's my point? Like I was saying - the NHL is all about rivalries and yet, there is no division title chase down the stretch between the Bolts and the Panthers. There are six total games between the Bolts and Southeast Division opponents over the last 2 months of the season. 6 games out of the final 19. And two of them are against soon-to-be former division member Winnipeg.
14 points apiece, being in control of second place in the Southeast Division on the line. You gotta hope that the Lightning come out playing more on par with how they are capable than how they showed up in the home-and-home series with the Panthers in mid-October. the October 15th and 17th games were disappointing at best, and a testament than the Panthers are going to make a push for a playoff spot.
With the Tampa Bay effort being middling for much of the season so far (heck, they'll be back to .500 for real with a win tonight - that's as middling as it gets), this evening's game against the Cats isn't just an empty contest before the Lightning face the Flyers on Wednesday... It's a chance to prove to themselves as well as the fans that the season has truly begun, and the effort from here on in will reflect that.
Mathieu Garon will start in net for the Lightning this evening. With the roster situation ironed out with Mattias Ritola's demotion to Norfolk, the Bolts have more wiggle room with the roster. Damian Cristodero tweeted earlier that Guy Boucher is toying with the idea of playing seven D-men, that will be the first time he's done so this season. Whatever happens, Ryan Shannon will be scratched. If Boucher goes with only six defenders, Blair Jones will be back in.
There's a chance Jose Theodore starts for the Cats. He's played well so far against the Lightning. But Jacob Markstrom has shaken things up in Sunrise with the goaltending situation. So much so that there will be a three-headed goalie rotation for the Panthers when Scott Clemmensen is activated and returns to the Panthers.
One final note: Though the Panthers are having a power-outage on the Power Play lately (as noted in the Tampabay.com preview), they ran roughshod over the Lightning on October 15th/17th. The Lightning need to play this game aware of what the Cats are capable of - they've seen it. They need to be ready to respond to it.