The Lightning will finish off their home schedule tonight on the second night of a back-to-back versus the playoff bound Columbus Blue Jackets after claiming a 4-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers last night. Coupled with a 2-0 shutout loss by the Montreal Canadiens on home ice to the New York Islanders, the Lightning are now in a unique and perhaps unexpected position, considering how grim their situation looked after Ben Bishop went down with another injury: they can claim home ice in the first round of the playoffs by winning their remaining two games, regardless of what happens in other games around the East.
They call it "controlling your own destiny" in sports circles, and while that's a touch on the melodramatic side, it does add a little bit of narrative flair (and importance) to these final two games on the schedule (the Bolts close out their season on Sunday at the Washington Capitals).
Of course, the biggest question for the Lightning remains in net. With Bishop injured, Jon Cooper and company desperately delved into the scrap heap and dusted off Anders Lindback, who has started (and won) consecutive games for the Lightning, including the shared shut out of the Toronto Maple Leafs where he relieved his injured teammate and last night's victory over the Flyers.
Conventional wisdom is something Cooper has been known to follow when it comes to goalie starts, and the conventional wisdom here says to "stick with the hot goalie". That's Lindback. Kristers Gudlevskis, who backed up last night after being called up from AHL Syracuse, is on hand but with a chance to gain home ice it's hard to imagine Cooper turning to an inconsistent 21-year old in favor of a much more experienced Lindback, even in a back-to-back situation.
The Bolts didn't just help themselves with their win over Philadelphia a night ago -- they also did a favor for tonight's opponent, setting Columbus up with an opportunity to duck the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins in the first round and instead face off against familiar foe the New York Rangers and former face of the franchise, Rick Nash.
Columbus is led offensively by Ryan Johansen, who leads the team in goals (32) and points (60), dramatically improving his scoring pace from a season ago where he scored just 12 points in 40 games (0.30 PPG). Word from others whose opinion I value seems to suggest that Johansen is the real deal, too, not just a flash in the pan:
@kalexanderRC Doing it in tough, tough minutes too. Probably the most improved player in the league.— Fear The Fin (@fearthefin) April 11, 2014
@kalexanderRC Took awhile for him to come around but he has been amazing this year. Does a little of everything.— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) April 11, 2014
Stopping that line will be a priority for a tired Lightning squad looking to battle their way into a Game 1 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum rather than the hostile, playoff-caliber Bell Centre.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, the Jackets aren't just rested, they're also prepared, having flown into Tampa Bay early after a clinching their own playoff spot with a win in Dallas, arriving in time to watch the Bolts drop the Flyers last night and with a chance to scout the Bolts ahead of tonight's game.
Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start for Columbus. Last season's Vezina winner has had a bit of a down season compared to last year's award-winning turn, but he's still 31-20-5 and he stopped 33 of 34 shots against a deadly Dallas Stars club on Wednesday, allowing just a single goal midway through the third period on a Dallas power play. He stopped all 27 Dallas shots at even strength.
UPDATE, 12:58 PM Eastern
Curtis McIlhinney will start for the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight, not Bobrovsky. You may remember McIlhinney, who was acquired by the Lightning from the Anaheim Ducks in 2011, but only lasted four days before being claimed on waivers by the Ottawa Senators.
Curtis McElhinney will start vs. TBL Friday http://t.co/zFACeJ2o8b— Rotoworld Hockey (@Rotoworld_HK) April 11, 2014