Season series finale... in October? Tampa Bay Lightning versus Chicago Blackhawks preview

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Eastern Conference teams face Western Conference teams twice ina season under schedule reform. And the Bolts are done with Chicago after tonight, 20 days after playing them the last time.

Where:  Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
When: 7:30 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio)
Opponent CoverageSecond City HockeyThe Committed Indian

Tonight is just the ninth game into the sojourn that is the Tampa Bay Lightning's 2013-14 seasons, and with it comes the quirk of schedule reform that was part of the entire realignment process.   It was pointed out a few days ago how challenging the schedule was during the seven game homestand.  It was pointed out the quirk of schedule repetition too.  Here's another quirk:  season series finale.

Tampa Bay faces the Chicago Blackhawks for the second and final time this season, exactly 20 days after their last meeting in the Windy City. You recall that affair, the second game of the Bolts season, don't you?  It was ugly, it was demoralizing, and yet it was an unfathomable victory in the shootout with thanks to the heroics of one Ben Bishop and an enduring roster that came back to life at the right time to steal two points from the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The ‘Hawks (6-1-2) are #2 in the Central Division, behind the roaring Colorado Avalanche. While the record (compared to the Avs 8-1-0 start) looks less impressive, they've done exactly what the Avs have done - taken points in eight of nine games played so far this season.

For the Lightning, they've had four days to regroup after Saturday's drubbing at the hands of their rival Boston.  It was Ben Bishop's worst game of the season in net, giving up 4 goals on 17 shots faced.  He was pulled after 35 minutes of action. It wasn't just a weak effort by the Bolts top goalie, though.  Martin St. Louis took direct blame for the lack of effort.

Saturday's game is  the past though. The important thing is to take from that loss what they can't get away with, and make sure they don't even try to get away with it in the future.

That applies for tonight's game as well.  Bishop starts between the pipes for the second time against Chicago.  Last time, he staked his claim for the #1 goalie role in Tampa by stopping 37 of 39 shots faced.  His effort is what enabled the Bolts comeback and eventual victory at United Center against Chicago.  He's had the confidence of Lightning fans squarely since that game.

For Chicago, it's our old friend Nikolai Khabibulin who is expected to start, if things go according to plan, it'll only be Khabibulin's second start since June 7th, 2004 in Tampa - his last game as a Bolt and his first game as a Stanley Cup Champion.  His first start in Tampa post-Lightning wasn't until March 22nd, 2012 while playing with the Edmonton Oilers.

You're still allowed to cheer him when he's introduced on the PA, ladies and gentlemen.  The choice is yours.

The Lightning's penalty kill unit continues its statistical rebound; it's still a mediocre 19th in the NHL, but a 78.8% kill-rate is better than where it stood after the Pittsburgh game just two weeks ago.  It's also a sight better than Chicago's PK unit at this time: 74.1% effectiveness, putting them at 28th in the league. Perhaps that stat is why Lightning head coach Jon Cooper had his players focusing on the power play during a recent practice.  Of course, Tampa Bay having a 1-for-13 power-outage on the power play is also ample reason to focus on it during practice as well.

***

Not involving this game but of note is that Syracuse Crunch goalie Riku Helenius is out for at least two weeks with an undisclosed ailment. Syracuse has called up Kristers Gudlevskis from the ECHL Florida Everblades. While I personally expect Cedrick Desjardins to get the bulk of the work in Helenius' absence, the organization is big enough on Kristers to give him a start.  Those decisions will ultimately be made by Crunch head coach Rob Zettler.  Gudlevskis has only played one game for the Everblades, a victory with 1 goal allowed on 21 shots faced.

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