On the flip-side of back-to-back games, the Lightning rise to Denver. This comes on the heels of a win, but it also comes on the heels of a contest between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs where everyone left the game with points. The Habs beat the Leafs, but Toronto took a point. That gives the Lightning sole possession of third place in the Atlantic Division but it also keeps the race tight-tight-tight. The Lightning continues to have two games in-hand on the Leafs and Canadiens.
There's a chance to retake second place in the division, going forward, if Tampa Bay can relax and start playing as a cohesive unit again. Winning the division? That's a stretch - Boston has pulled away with 79 points; they'll have to hit a very serious road bump for the Lightning to catch them.
That's divisional standings, though, and the Lightning's opponent tonight is not a division or conference rival. No, the Avalanche are another Central Division team, one of the top ones at that, as they sit in third place in the division with 81 points after beating the Phoenix Coyotes in Denver on Friday.
But will the Avs treat this game as just an unimportant cross-conference scrimmage, or will they go into this out for a little revenge? Colorado and the Lightning played a tilt in Tampa back in late January, with Tyler Johnson showing up #1 draft pick Nathan Mackinnon in a clash of Calder Award candidates. Mackinnon has 10 more points than Johnson at this juncture, and Johnson is playing hurt at this point.
Then again, here's an opportunity for Ondrej Palat to make a statement if he wants. Palat is tied with Johnson in the rookie points standings with 37, assisting on many a Martin St. Louis goal before and after the Olympic break. The Czech Olympian is also a plus-23 at this point, which trumps both Johnson and Mackinnon, and is second best among the 2013-14 NHL rookie class behind Hampus Lindholm on the Anaheim Ducks (plus-26).
Another question going into this game, specifically aimed at the Lightning, is stating goaltenders; Ben Bishop faced 41 shots yesterday in Dallas in the 4-2 win, while the team in front of him only managed 21 on the Stars net. You take that into consideration, then factor in the altitude of Colorado and you have the makings of an exhausted netminder in the later stages of the game. Do you start Bishop, 29-9-4, in another back-to-back affair, or do you give rookie Kristers Gudlevskis the start? Gudlevskis - yes, Colorado fans, that Gudlevskis - is dressing as Bishop's partner at this point while Anders Lindback rehabs in Syracuse... While this occasion isn't the best to give a rookie a start, the idea of Bishop carrying the entire load for the Bolts doesn't thrill me. Head coach Jon Cooper has started Bishop on back-to-back games before, but it's not often that altitude is a factor in those games. Maybe I'm putting too much emphasis on how thin air can affect physical efforts, but it is something to consider if you notice the Lightning playing hagarded in the later stages of tonight's game.
Victor Hedman notched his 100th assist of his career yesterday afternoon in Dallas, and while his 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists) pale in comparison to his fellow 2009 NHL draft class alumni Matt Duchene's 53 (19 goals, 34 assists) but the defenseman has truly blossomed offensively this season. It remains to be seen if he'll be a Norris Trophy finalist when the season concludes next month, but Hedman's contribution on both sides of the blueline have been vital for Tampa Bay; he's third on the team in scoring at this point, behind Martin St. Louis and Valtteri Filppula, but ahead of the offensive tandem of Palat and Johnson, or other known scoring threats.
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