Last night's NHL action saw the New York Rangers fall to the Atlanta Thrashers, 3-2. The relevance of the game was that Atlanta, which hasn't been playing it's best hockey of late, climbed above the Carolina Hurricanes in the standings and regained the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference.
That adds significance to tonight's game at Times Palace for the visiting Hurricanes. They've been pushed out of the playoff window and would like to climb back into the picture. Having two games in hand over the Thrashers will give them opportunity to make up ground, but facing the Lightning (a team Carolina beat up on last month at the RBC Center, 6-4) might give them an additional reason to come into this game as hard as possible.
The Lightning are hurting, we've mentioned that (and hardly much else) over the 3-day break between games. Johan Harju should be in the lineup, replacing the injured Ryan Malone. Defenseman Matt Smaby, who is hurting as well, should also be in the lineup again to replace Mike Lundin, who is out indefinitely with his abdominal strain. Nate Boucher... er, Nate Thompson will also be out of the lineup as he continues to recover from a mild concussion. Expect seven defensemen in the lineup tonight.
Regardless, it's another Southeast showdown for the Bolts, and they better be prepared to play a hungry team.
We talked about the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference above, but it may be wiser to give a general picture of the Southeast Division standings at this point:
While there is a wide gap between the top two teams in the SE and the third and fourth place squads... You can see how tight it is at the bottom. Florida is just out of contention as it stands as well. The seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference standings are what's realistically attainable (as of right now) for the Canes and Thrashers. The aforementioned Rangers have fallen on hard times, losing their last six.
That's why I expect Carolina to come into the arena tonight hungry, and hoping to right things as they are 1-3-1 in their past five games. After three days off for the Lightning, they too are looking to right things after their third-period meltdown against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday.