The Lightning, and a majority of Eastern Conference playoff contenders have 8 games left in the season, this includes this evening's opponent in the Detroit Red Wings who now officially (not in a tied-but-have-fewer-games-played fashion) fourth in the Atlantic Division with 82 points after defeating the Maple Leafs last night. That puts them in a wild card spot. It also puts them in need of shutting the door on the rest of the wild card contenders - Toronto, the Washington Capitals, the New Jersey Devils, and the Columbus Blue Jackets (who currently hold the second wild card spot.) That means tonight is just as important as last night for the Wings, who had played the Maple Leafs and handed them their 8th consecutive loss.
The Bolts have all-but-clinched a playoff spot at this point; they are two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second seed in the Atlantic Division and have two games in-hand on the Habs. Both teams are flying right now in their own capacities - Tampa Bay is on an 11 game point streak (fluke) and Montreal is 8-2-0 in their past 10 games. I should save the drama of the situation until later in the week - the two clubs square off head-to-head on April 1st at Times Palace.
So, this evening's game is a contest between a club looking to pad its points lead and a club trying to improve its playoff seeding. It's a big game in that light, but it's not a killer-important one compared to what Detroit faced last night against the Leafs.
Oh, but they're also trying to save face with this one and avoid a season series sweep by the Lightning, who the Wings had manhandled for the past 20 years prior to this season; 25-5-0 with 2 ties. They were 13-1-0 with a single tie at the Joe against the Bolts coming in to the season too. Now they're trying to prevent Tampa Bay's fifth consecutive win against them.
As of this writing it's not clear about lineup changes or the starting goalie for the Bolts. If recent trends hold up, we'll see the exact same lineup as last night in Buffalo.... And I don't know if that is a wise choice in this instance if the Bolts want a win. Ben Bishop is playing hurt, and other guys likely are as well. Five players are sitting around waiting for opportunities, and it's not like they can't play or they'd have been placed on waivers ages ago. Mark Barberio, Keith Aulie, Tom Pyatt, Richard Panik and collegiate signee Cody Kunyk are fresh while others are dinged up and taxed from last night and the recent torrid pace of the season. Of the four, Kunyk's the only one who I'd look at as someone that may not be ready to step in to NHL action (and make his league debut.)
Detroit is 5-4-1 in their past 10 games, and an interesting note about their season: only former Bolts (sic) Drew Miller and Kyle Quincey have played all 74 games this season for Detroit. Check the lineup and the stats yourself, everyone has missed playing time this season for Detroit, some of them substantially. And yet Detroit is on the cusp of locking up a playoff spot.
One other note: Tampa Bay's power play has risen to 13th in the NHL with an 18.6% conversion rate. Having Steven Stamkos back in the lineup has propelled this; of his 23 goals this season, 8 have been scored on the power play. He's shown some nifty chemistry with Valtteri Filppula on the man advantage too.
Other Game Coverage: