Back-to-back, home-and-home; Hurricanes at Lightning preview

WHERE: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida

WHEN: 7:30 PM EDT
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 620 WDAE (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Canes Country

So, where do the Tampa Bay Lightning go from here?

The immediate future says Raleigh, North Carolina. That's after tonight's match-up with the Carolina Hurricanes in first of back-to-back meetings.

Both games, as a unit, represent the Lightning's opportunity to clinch its first playoff berth since the 2006-2007 season. The team's magic number is 7 -- a combination of points gained by the Bolts and lost by the 9th seeded team in the Eastern Conference.

Which happens to currently be the Carolina Hurricanes.

There's an eight-point swing potential this weekend -- the Lightning can gain four points with two wins, and the Hurricanes lose those potential points with regulation loses. That'd seal the playoff berth.

But with the good comes the bad, and as a fan you've seen the bad of late: The Lightning haven't been playing like the squad that caught our attention and our imagination for most of the season. Have they hit a wall? Have injuries finally, formally, taken their toll? Or are they just not that good? Whatever your reasoning, the result is the same thing: The Bolts have been in free-fall for a while now. They gain points in the standings with overtime loses, but they are showing as of late that the team may have over-achieved early in the season.

The potential is there, but something's got to change to re-invigorate this squad.

Enough of the Debbie Downer crap. This weekend remains the Bolts first opportunity to clinch. It also represents the first opportunity for the Lightning to have Steve Downie return to the lineup.

Yeah, Downie may be back in action tonight. He has been skating with the team over the past few days and has to talk to coaching... But he may be back in the lineup tonight.

Ryan Malone is also on the cusp of returning. When? Can't tell you for certain, but it will be a morale booster -- but will it also improve the team's performance? We'll see.

The Cans come to town fighting for their playoff lives. They are 5-4-1 in their past 10 games, sitting 3 points out of the 8th seed in the East, currently occupied by the Buffalo Sabres. They need these games if they want to keep their playoff chances alive.

The Canes are currently ranked 23rd in the NHL on the power play with a 15.3% conversion rate. They'll be matched up against the Bolts penalty kill unit, which has a 83.4% efffectiveness. On the flip side, the Bolts 6th ranked power play unit (20.7% conversion rate) will face the Canes 18th ranked penalty-kill unit (81.4% effectiveness). While the Lightning-power-play-to-Carolina-penalty-kill percentages may seem favorable for the Lightning, this is still the team that has given up the most short-handed goals in the NHL (15).

Finally, Steven Stamkos' league leading 43 goals are now seriously in jeopardy. Corey Perry notched 2 goals last night for the Anaheim Ducks and now has 42 on the season.

Other Previews

Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview

Bolts By Rhe Bay

Full game coverage on SB Nation

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