Tonight is the midway point of the final homestand of the 2013-14 regular season, it also marks the last time the Lightning will face a Western Conference opponent (...in the regular season, at least.) The Dallas Stars (like the Flames before them) find themselves on an east coast trip at an odd time (the end) of the regular season.
I really don't care for that much; it's not the opponents, it's the cross-conference play at a crucial time in the NHL season. Dallas is a perfect example of why (for marketing purposes for the team) the scheduling is bad; they're a single point behind Phoenix for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference right now. The NHL made a big deal about building rivalries with the new playoff format and it would seem the schedule makers (or some other rub, like the 16-team/14-team conference split) didn't factor in how rivalries are also born during the playoff stretch too. Dallas is playing for their playoff lives and they're finishing an east coast trip late in the season?
These cross-conference games should fill up the middle of the regular season, with conference and divisional play stacked at the start and end of the season. There are only two teams right now who can get away with late cross-conference play, because they just came from the Western Conference: the Detroit Red Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets. Even then, it's irrelevant if you want to build rivalries. This applies for Dallas, this applies for Calgary, and this even applies for the New York Rangers (who were on a recent west coast trek) and other teams from both conferences who found themselves on opposing coasts recently.
The only time I want to see a cross-conference game in the spring is in May/June with the Stanley Cup on the line. But that's just my opinion.
Back to tonight, Dallas is fighting for their playoff lives while Tampa Bay looks to rebound from their implosion to the Calgary Flames on Thursday night. It wasn't exactly a horrible effort put forth by the Bolts on Thursday but the entire game had a vibe of sleeping-at-the-wheel. Ben Bishop's mid-first period brain fart put the club in a two-goal hole outright.
And of course, Bishop starts again because of the baffling and unexplained position that management has regarding backup Anders Lindback... Or any backup for that matter. When the season resmed after the Olympic break, Tampa Bay was on the road with Lindback in Syracuse on a conditioning stint. Kristers Gudlevskis was serving as Ben Bishop's backup while Tampa visited Nashville, Dallas, and Colorado. Lindback rejoined the club in the final game of the road trip, and Gudlevskis never saw a singular moment of playing time. That came in spite of the back-to-back games that were on the schedule in Dallas and Denver.
Lindback has made one start - one - since his recall. Bishop, despite a sprained wrist and showing obvious pain at times, has stared everything. I'm waiting for someone - national media, local media, whomever - to get head coach Jon Cooper, goalie coach Frantz Jean and general manager Steve Yzerman on the record as to why they're riding Bishop into the ground and why the total lack of faith in Lindback?
According to Missy Zelinski, defenseman Andrej Sustr is to make his return to the Lightning lineup tonight; he was recalled from the Syracuse Crunch yesterday. Other lineup notes for the Lightning: Tom Pyatt should be in while B.J. Crombeen will be out. Yet, with how Cooper has been operating lately, I only expect Sustr to be inserted where Mark Barberio had been on Thursday - their defense pairing with Eric Brewer. Everything else will likely remain static.
Kari Lehtonen makes the start in net for the Stars tonight; he's made 61 appearances for the Stars this season with a 30-16-10 record (.918 save percentage and a 2.46 GAA.) Meanwhile, the Stars offense remains exceedingly top-heavy with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn having 149 points between them (78 and 71 points, respectively) before a big drop off (Alex Goligoski has 38 points.) It's not like the Lightning aren't top-heavy as well (Valtteri Filppula leads the team with 57 points, and Ondrej Palat is next with 54) but it's a much more gradual decline. Shutting down Seguin and Benn is the start o defeating Dallas. Playing a sound and responsible game would help too.
Finally tonight, congratulations to former team captain Dave Andreychuk who will be honored with a statue on Thunder Alley before the game. As of this writing, there's the potential for weather to affect the ceremony before the game, but the team has not gone so far as to announce any contingency plans if inhospitable weather does hamper the outdoor ceremony.
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