The weight of tonight's game in Raleigh is best expressed in an image:
The argument it's still early in the season and this is just another game doesn't hold water. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a third of the way through this abbreviated 2013 season after Thursday night's loss to Boston. The Hurricanes will reach the 1/3rd mark tonight. And that benchmark makes the "it's early" mantra ring hollow.
This one's for the division lead, and with the Lightning's weak play on the road and its immediate schedule in front of them - six of the next seven on the road, with back-to-back affairs this weekend against the Canes tonight and Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow - it's necessary they leave Raleigh tonight with at least a point but preferably two. The Bolts are the 9th seed in the East at this point, a single point removed from the playoffs (and a climb of five to 7th).
Tonight's storm between the top two teams in the division features offensive potency from both sides. If you haven't been reading Carolyn's pieces regarding the Southeast Division, it might be worth your time to catch up on what the Hurricanes have been doing. The Staal brothers have a combined 31 points between them, with contributions coming from Alexander Semin, Jeff Skinner, and Jiri Tlusty. Eric Staal always plays with a grudge when the Bolts are in town and that means a physical affair from the team captain. That can work in Carolina's favor or against them (your captain in the box doesn't help your cause).
Meanwhile, back in the crease... The situation in Carolina rivals that of the Lightning - it's awfully familiar and familiarly awful in that the team starter, the anointed #1, is boasting a sub-.900 save percentage and a > 3.10 GAA. Cam Ward is not playing to the level he is capable of. Lightning fans are also familiar with his backup - Dan Ellis - who is playing lights-out in his limited time in the crease - 5 games, with 4 starts, a .943 save percentage and a 1.74 GAA. With the stats in mind, and the knowledge goalies tend to raise their game when playing against former teams, it's Ellis who will be starting tonight for the Hurricanes.
With the Lightning at the start of back-to-back affairs, it's possible that Mathieu Garon starts tonight instead of Anders Lindback. Garon played in Raleigh last month (game #3 on the season) and came out a winner in that affair. It's dependent on how much focus head coach Guy Boucher puts on the immediate game instead of looking ahead. Pittsburgh tomorrow may be more of a challenge (or not... who knows) but a win tonight puts the Lightning in the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference - a quite a step up in the standings.
No lineup notes have come out today as of yet (starting goalie, if Keith Aulie returns or if the Bolts will use an 11-7 roster split or 12-6). We'll keep you posted when that information comes to light.
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