The Lightning are currently in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division, tied with the Montreal Canadiens in points (45) but with two games in hand on Les Habs... That puts them ahead of them in the standings. That's a scant 3 points behind the Boston Bruins for the division lead. That's not too shabby for a team who's (formerly) leading goal scorer has been out for more than a month.
The efforts of cap'n Martin St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula and the larger roster have helped Tampa Bay continue to tread water and make waves in the wake of the loss of Steven Stamkos. Going 13-3-1 at home and a slightly-under-.500 8-8-2 on the road isn't working against them either.
Yet the efforts of Ben Bishop and his value to the team this season cannot be brushed off or passed over in how and why the Lightning remain a force in the Atlantic or in the larger Eastern Conference. Ben, in his first full season with the Lightning and his first real shot as a starting netminder, has been the most formidable and consistent netminder with the Lightning since Nikolai Khabibulin's debut season with Tampa Bay. Nik played in 70(!) games for a still-weak Lightning team and went 24-32 with 10 ties during that season, posting a 2.36 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Those numbers would have been lower but Khabibulin didn't just play in 70 NHL games that season, he also played in another six games during the 2002 Winter Olympics for Team Russia, posting a 2.34 GAA.
There's been talk for a few days now about how Bishop is (or damn well should be) a candidate for Team USA and their 2014 Sochi Olympic roster. The talk started on Twitter with Hockey Buzz's Mike Stuart repeatedly beating the drum for Bishop to be named to the US Olympic team. Jason Haas over at Lightning Shout followed up with a post, and today we see the Tampa Tribune continue beating the drum for Bishop and the Olympics.
While Martin St. Louis is the heart and soul of the Bolts (and where Marty goes, so goes the Lightning) right now Ben Bishop is the lungs. He's why this team is breathing, he's why this team is competing; he's what gives Tampa Bay a chance. He stops shots he has to, he stops shots that others haven't been effective in doing over the past several season or the Lightning. He currently stands at 18-5-2 with a .934 save percentage and a 1.96 GAA.
And he's starting tonight against Carolina.
I'm not thrilled with the idea of Bishop playing on the US Olympic Team in Russia, but that's not because I don't think he should be honored with being named to Team USA. It's more a selfish decision on my part and worry about wear and tear; after Sochi, there's still a month in the NHL season to be played... and the playoffs. An overworked Bishop is not what Tampa Bay needs for that final push. But if the fates so deem that Ben is an Olympian, so be it. We'll deal with it... And we may deal with it with Steven Stamkos back in the lineup too.
Tom Pyatt is being activated off injured reserve and will be back in the lineup per Erik Erlendsson. Tom has not played a full game this season; he was injured in his season debut in Buffalo where he broke his collarbone. He's been recuperating and rehabilitating since then. Defenseman Mark Barberio and forwards B.J. Crombeen, Pierre-Cedric Labrie will be scratched... So, while it lets us all know that the Bolts now have another center available to them on the roster through Pyatt, on the more immediate scale, it lets us know that Tampa Bay will employ the 11-7 roster split again, with Pyatt and Richard Panik likely the spare forwards / 4th liners.
As for Carolina, they sit 7 games below .500 (they're 14-14 in regulation, but the loser-point column throws off our perception. They have 7 overtime losses / shoot out loses.) They're tied with the Philadelphia Flyers in the Metro Division standings, far below the division leading Pittsburgh Penguins. That even-but-not record extends to their home and road records - 7-7-4 at PNC Arena, 7-7-3 on the road.
The usual suspects - Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner - lead the Hurricanes offensively with 21 goals and 28 assists between them. Alexander Semin has had injury issues this season and has played in only 23 games for the Canes at this point (3 goals and 7 assists when healthy). He should be in the lineup tonight for Carolina.
The Hurricanes and the Lightning tend to get a little physical, so I wouldn't be surprised to see the officials and special teams play a role in this one. Tampa Bay's power play has lost its effectiveness as the season has progressed; it currently is ranked 22nd in the NHL with a 15.7% efficiency. Carolina, on the other hand, is worse: a 12.7% power play which ranks them 28th in the league. The Hurricanes penalty kill is almost equally lowly ranked - 23rd in the league with a 79.5% efficiency; Tampa Bay is ranked 11th in the league with an 83.6 kill-rate.
If the Bolts want to jump-start their power play, this is as good a game as any to try to do it.
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