The home finale; Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning preview

WHERE: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7:30 PM EDT
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 970 WFLA (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Litter Box Cats

Well, this is just odd...

At this point the past three seasons, when the Tampa Bay Lighting have reached the home finale of the year (or the grand finale of the season), I've been fed up but hold out hope for better days ahead. Maybe. Hopefully...

Now we come to the conclusion of the Bolts regular season home schedule... And I feel odd even saying that. "Home finale? Wait, wait, what about the playoffs?"

That's looking ahead to the future, and looking past the now. The Tampa Bay Lightning are still capable of closing out the season with more than 100 points earned, which will be the most since the 2003-04 season. The 2010-11 team will be second, all time, no matter what the outcome is of the back-to-back affairs that close out this season (meaning that even if they win both games, they will be short of the 105 points earned by the 2003-04 team).

What's also outright strange is seeing the Bolts finish their home schedule before their road schedule. Reflecting on the season, the Bolts seemed to perpetually be on the road for what seemed like the entire first three months of the season. The epic 12 game homestand from January 23 through February 27 did help even things out... But still, it feels like this team has more home games to play.

Hopefully, at least eight, if not more.

Defenseman Victor Hedman will not play tonight nor tomorrow in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. He's got a lower body injury and this is a precautionary move. But with the bad comes the good: blue-liner Eric Brewer will be back tonight for the Lightning after missing the last few games as a precaution for an undisclosed ailment. Also on the bright side, Randy Jones is on target to return in the 1st round of the playoffs for the Lightning.

As I sort of alluded to above, this is the first (and last) of back-to-back affairs. Post-game, the Lightning head up to Raleigh, North Carolina to conclude their regular season schedule with the to-the-last-gasp-stay-in-contention Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes, with two games left to play, are two points shy of the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff spot int he east. The Rags, losers last night to the Atlanta Thrashers, have only one game left.

The Bolts have the potential to play the spoiler for Carolina...

Meanwhile, back at Times Palace, the Bolts face off against the Panthers who are 1-6-3 in their past 10 games. They are last in the Eastern Conference, and will be likely top five team in the 2011 NHL draft lottery.

And they remain the team that has given the Bolts headaches. If you're looking at statistics and think the Lightning have a pushover opponent, think again. The Lightning never play the Panthers like they should. Their collective record against the Panthers, in five contests, is 1-1-3. Overtime losses and shootout loses be damned, that record is a reflection on how the Lightning play the Panthers: poorly.

Dwayne Roloson should be starting in net for the Lightning tonight, though if Mike Smith gets the start, I don't see that as an entirely bad thing. Tomorrow night will be a playoff-like atmosphere in Raleigh, as the Hurricanes fight for their collective playoff lives. Who would you rather have starting that game?

Martin St. Louis is 3rd in the Art Ross trophy race for the most points this season. He had been in 2nd, behind Daniel Sedin... But Corey Perry and his point surge continues. Perry now has 97 points on the season, while Marty has 95.

Stephen Weiss is 1 point away from breaking the 50 point plateau for the third time in his career -- and won't get a chance to break it. Pete DeBoer (Florida Panthers Head coach) says Weiss is out fo the Panthers remaining two games.. For the Lightning, Teddy Purcell is on the cusp of reaching 50 points in a season for the first time in his NHL career.

On special teams: the Florida Panthers are bi-polar. They boast one of the top penalty kill units in the NHL (with an 85.1% kill-rate, good for fifth in the NHL) and they also suffer from the worst power play unit in the NHL, converting on 13.4% of power play opportunities. The Lightning power play, and the 16 short-handed goals allowed, is ranked sixth in the NHL with a 20.2% conversion rate. The Bolts own penalty kill is rated 10th int eh NHL, with an 83.4% kill-rate.

It's fan appreciation night at Times Palace. Plenty going on in the West Plaza before the game, and plenty going on inside the arena during and after the game (the annual off-our-backs jersey giveaway). The first 5,000 fans wearing Lightning gear will receive a Lightning flag.

 

Other Previews

Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview

TBO

Tampabay.com

Full game coverage on SB Nation

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