WHERE:St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7:30 PM EDT
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 620 WDAE (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Silver Seven Sens
For the third time in 19 days, the Tampa Bay Lightning face off tonight against the Ottawa Senators. They go into tonight's game with their magic number at four. A win tonight by the Lightning and a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes (who are playing the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center this evening) would seal the Bolts first playoff appearence in four years.
But here's the catch: Curtis McElhinney and the Ottawa Senators.
Yeah, I already stated that the Bolts play Ottawa tonight. All four meetings between the two clubs have ultimately been decided by one goal: A 2-1 victory on January 8th in Ottawa; A 2-1 loss at Times Palace on March 11th; the spirit breaking 3-2 overtime collapse in Ottawa on the 19th.
Three contests. The difference-maker each time proved to be goaltending: Dwayne Roloson (who starts tonight for the Lightning) and Curtis McElhinney. McElhinmney has a 1.45 GAA against the Lightning in 2 starts, and a .959 save percentage. If he doesn't start tonight, I'll be very surprised.
Speaking of surprises, I have a pleasant one if you haven't already heard the news: LW Ryan Malone, who has played one game since January 21st due to injuries, has been cleared to play. He's a game time decision tonight.
On a personal note, thinking about tonight's game, I'm optimistic... But then I have to taper thoughts with the reality of recent struggles. The Bolts are coming off a solid win in Raleigh, but before that they repeatedly and alarmingly had been on a nose-dive slump. It's important to try to keep grounded with optimism, while not being a Debbie Downer with pessimism.
It's a tough tightrope to walk with expectations.
It feels like it's been a few months, but the Lightning have finally gained a few points on their power play conversion prowess. They're still ranked 6th in the NHL, but they're now have a 21.2% conversion rate (an increase from 20.7 percent which they had been stuck at, or around, for a while). The Senators power play, by contrast, is 19th in the league (16.9%).
On the other side of special teams, the Lightning penalty kill is ranked 14th in the NHL with a 82.8% effectiveness. Ottawa, on the other hand, is sitting at 8th league-wide. Their penalty kill unit is stopping 83.8% of opposing power play opportunities.
This is going to come down to play in the Lightning's own end. If they can give Roloson the defensive support he deserves (in both ends, guys -- no more break away opportunities) then they stand a chance. But if sloppy play (which we saw as recently as Friday night) rules the game... Well, three losses to a team out of the playoff hunt in the last 19 days will not exactly boost morale.