Tonight's match-up between the Lightning and the New York Islanders doesn't just begin the Lightning's last homestand before the Olympic break, but also a span of four of the next six games where the Bolts can either solidify their newfound position of seeded for the playoffs, or they can fall back into the mire of the Eastern Conference bottom dwellers.
The Bolts are indeed on the inside after their 2-1 victory over the Thrashers. The test before the Olympic Break is to stay there, though. With games against the Isles (two of them), Bruins and Rangers upcoming, the Bolts are in must-win or must-compete situations against other teams trying to establish a sound playoff foothold.
The back-to-back losses to Florida last month were damning for the Bolts playoff chase. To lose to the Isles twice in two weeks puts the Bolts in the same situation -- shooting themselves in the foot and empowering a team just three points behind them in the conference standings.
And the sideshow that must be mentioned: Nate Thompson faces off against his former team tonight for the first time since his waiving. In five games with the Lightning, Thompson is minus-1 and has nine shots on goal. He's been a sound addition to the Lightning for the most part, even if he has not made an offensive contribution yet.
On the other hand, since his waiving on January 20th, the Islanders are 1-5 during that stretch and have been outscored 20-8 combined in those six contests.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, veteran defenseman Brendan Witt, returning from IR, was waived by the Islanders yesterday.
The Lightning power play is eighth in the NHL once again, with a 19.4% conversion rate. The Bolts penalty kill, however, still leaves somethign to be desired as the team is killing off only 79.7% of penalties, ranking them 25th in the NHL. Knowing the Lightning play stronger at home on both special team units, expect those percentages to increase tonight (well, if they don't find themselves stymied by the Islanders bi-polar goaltending corps).
But both numbers are a sight better than the Islanders special teams. The Isles are 28th in the league for both the power play (15.7%) and Penalty kill (75.1%).
Rick Tocchet will be riding the hot hand in net tonight as Antero Niittymaki gets the start over Mike Smith.
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
(updated February 4, 2010 by Raw Charge - subject to change)
Ryan Malone - Vincent Lecavalier - Alex Tanguay
Martin St. Louis - Steven Stamkos - Steve Downie
Nate Thompson - Jeff Halpern - Stephane Veilleux
Todd Fedoruk - Zenon Konopka - Kurtis Foster
Mattias Ohlund - Mike Lundin
Matt Smaby - Victor Hedman
Andrej Meszaros - Matt Walker
Antero Niittymaki (starter)