Thank you, Phil Esposito.
In the beginning, there was Phil Esposito.
He conceptualized it, and then secured a National Hockey League franchise for the Tampa Bay area.on December 6th, 1990. 22 years after the conception of the Lightning, and on the brink of its 20th anniversary season (1992-93 / 2012-13), it's fitting that Phil will be honored with a statue outside TImes Palace, and then honored again inside the arena during the Bolts contest with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Today is the ceremonial passage-of-time, from one year to the next. It's New Years eve, after all. 2011 is about to pass the baton to 2012. Another passage will be taking place, quite literal, before the game, too. The St. Pete Times Forum name will officially pass into history, while the Tampa Bay Times Forum will make its debut.
Corporate naming rights be damned, though. This is Phil's evening. And the Bolts are vying to close the year with a three game winning streak. All that stands in their way are the Carolina Hurricanes.
Sweeping the three-game homestand would be a testament for the Lightning, especially while the team remains battered and bruised. There will be no Victor Hedman for tonight's game (and that should continue indefinitely). Nate Thompson will also remain on the sidelines, as he has not healed from his lower-body injury.
The Lightning have not won three-in-a-row since November 4th thru 9th (against the Blackhawks, Panthers, and Flyers, respectively). Three games is the longest winning streak of the season (which was also accomplished in October). It should be noted that the November winning streak started after a loss to the Hurricanes in Raleigh.
Steven Stamkos... Well, lets just say he's earning that new contract, handily. He has 23 goals on the season and leads the NHL. He's scored seven goals during the past seven games, while notching 10 points.
As for between-the-pipes for the Bolts? Mathieu Garon gets his seventh consecutive start in net. The Bolts are 4-1-1 during his previous six starts, suffering the blow-out loss (where Garon was chased after 6 minutes) in San Jose, and the overtime heart-breaker in Denver before Christmas. It's the San Jose game (and his whopping 28.35 GAA from his performance there) that keeps his goals-against-average of recent elevated. 6.70. Subtract that performance, an his GAA becomes a much more respectable 2.37 over the past five games.
The Hurricanes are a scant 3 points behind the Lightning in the standings. They've recently climbed out of the Eastern Conference cellar, and would like nothing more than to do the same in the Southeast Division. The Canes are coming off a 4-3 overtime winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Game thread goes live at 4:30.