A mid-season series premiere; Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs preview

USA TODAY Sports

Opening a four-game road trip, the Lightning face their new Atlantic Division rival Toronto for the first time this season.

Where:  Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario
When: 7 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Television - Sun Sports, TSN | Radio - 970 AM WFLA
Opponent Coverage: Pension Plan Puppets, The Leafs Nation

Almost three complete months after the NHL season commenced, the Lightning begins its season series with the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight as they begin a four game swing through the great white north of Canada and Minnesota.  This isn't a big thing, the delay in the start of the season series with an Atlantic Division opponent, but at the same time it's huge.

The Lightning are slated to play the entirety of the Flortheast a total of 28 times during the regular season (4 games each, 7 divisional opponents).  That's a departure from the unbalanced, 6-times-a-season scheduling of the recent past that existed before the 2013-14 realignment of the NHL.

Tampa Bay is 11-3-1 at this point in the season against the division, suffering all of its regulation losses to Boston in the first 42 days of the season. Being dominated like that usually keeps teams down, but the balanced schedule and the Bolts ability to eke out wins against the rest of the division and the Western Conference has kept them flying high, dueling for the division lead at times.

There are 13 games left against the division this season, and Toronto takes up almost a third of those games.  The Leafs are 7 points behind the Lightning in the standings, putting a premium on the head-to-head games yet to be played between the two clubs.  If Toronto keeps pace with the Lightning the rest of the season and knocks off Tampa in head-to-head play, it sets the stage for them to ensure their own place in the playoffs, something that hadn't been assured with inconsistent play for most of the season.

That inconsistent play is highlighted in their past four games: after knocking out the Coyotes and the Avalanche, Toronto was absolutely pasted at the hands of the Dallas Stars (7-1final). They made a showing the next game against the Winnipeg Jets but were losers in overtime (5-4).  They're 6-3-1 in their past 10 games, and that overtime loss pushed them ahead of the Montreal Canadiens for 3rd place in the division.

The Leafs have quite the tandem in goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer; don't let goals-against average for either netminder fool you (2.64 for Bernier, 3.20 for Reimer), it's their save percentage that you need to square in on; both are weathering a storm in the crease.  Bernier, acquired from the Kings in the off-season, has been the de facto #1 for Toronto (38 appearances, 17-15-5) and has the better save percentage of the duo (.924), but you shouldn't write-off Reimer as Leafs management seemed to do when acquiring Bernier.  Reimer, in 24 appearances, is 10-6-1 with a .913 save percentage.  Both goalies are showing they'll turn away what they can and give the Leafs a chance; it'd just be helpful if the team in front of them turned away opponents' shots.  The Leafs are giving up the most shots on goal a night in the NHL right now (36.2) which tasks their goalies to bail them out more and more.  Lightning fans saw this in 2010-11 with what was asked of Dwayne Roloson after his acquisition, and the standard stayed the same the next two seasons. It's part of what ultimately led to Guy Boucher's ouster.

Bernier is slated to start this one for Toronto.

Giving up too many shots isn't the only problem Toronto is facing at the moment, it also has a woeful penalty kill unit, 2nd to last in the NHL (76.8% efficiency).  Tampa Bay's kill unit isn't much better though; a 79.4% efficiency puts them only three spots ahead of Toronto in the league rank.

And then there's the power play units for the two clubs, where Toronto's 22.4% conversion rate puts the Lightning's 17.8% to shame.  The Bolts have been improving with their power play, it's still ranked 15 spots lower than Toronto, so that gives you an idea of how inefficient they are with the man advantage.

Would the Lightning's efficiency with the man-advantage be improved if Steven Stamkos was participating?  That's hard to say, really... While scoring is a must to lift the percentage, you can't score if you can't keep the puck in the opponents' zone.  That's where the Lightning has the most trouble. If this game is driven by special teams play, though, it may favor Toronto.

Speaking of Stamkos, he participated in the morning skate today in a normal practice jersey - he's back to taking full contact.  Start your speculation on when #91 returns to the lineup.

This game also represents Maple Leaf defenseman Paul Ranger's first game (potentially, he has been scratched 16 times this season) against his former club.  I don't think I need to rehash the mystery and drama of Paul Ranger's disappearance in Tampa.  He currently has 2 goals and 7 assists in 36 games with the Leafs; he's also a minus-8 during his NHL-comeback season with Toronto.

In another note worth mentioning, Martin St. Louis needs all of one assist to reach 600 for his career.  He's currently 36 points shy of 1000 for his career as well.  With linemates Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson playing well, there's a good chance St. Louis reaches that 600 benchmark tonight, or on the Bolts current road trip.

Other Game Coverage:

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