The Tampa Bay Lightning have 24 games left in the NHL season, tied for 2nd place in the Atlantic Division with the Montreal Canadiens (71 points each) but with two games in hand on the Habs (as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs).
While the Bolts season resumes on the road with a four game jaunt in the Western Conference that will be the last of the west trips for the 2013-14 season. In fact, a lot of the road ahead is not on the road. Of the 24 games to be played (which includes tonight's contest against the Predators), 14 will be played at Times Palace, with the majority of those games played in a pair of six-game homestands.
Of course, that doesn't mean things are a cakewalk to get to the 2014 NHL playoffs. I mean, you have to actually play the games, right? That's the first issue, and then there's a little drama that is playing out at current that may or may not affect team morale and the locker room. We've seen the Lightning tank in post-Olympic play just four years ago because of a divide created between coaches by way of Brian Lawton. In another instance of distractions by way of possible transactions, five years ago this also played out with the Montreal Canadiens trying to obtain former Bolt Vincent Lecavalier. Montreal's general manager at the time, Bob Gainey, blamed the sideshow of rumors and speculation on distracting his club.
So there's drama playing out, while a positive drama (the return of Steven Stamkos) won't happen during this road trip... It's a boost that will be needed. Another morale boost, perhaps, is the retunn of Michael Kostka to his former band of brothers. Much of the Tampacuse core had played with Mike while they were members of the Calder Cup winning Norfolk Admirals. We'll see if
Nashville is sitting in the Central Division cellar at the moment with 60 points to their name and a 25-24-10 record. While the Preds could get back on solid ground in the standings in their final 23 games of the season, the playoffs seem out of reach; they're only two games behind Winnipeg and four behind Dallas, but the top of the division is leaps and bounds in front of them, with Chicago and St. Louis (pronounced Saint Lewis) dominating with 84 points each while Colorado well ahead of the rest of the pack with 79 points.
Nashville's struggles can be tied to the absence of Pekka Rinne in net and an anemic offense led by David Legwand (10 goals, 30 assists). While Pekka's return is forthcoming for Nashville (he's been sent for a conditioning stint in Milwaukee ), I have to admit that I like the pickup of goalie Devan Dubynk from the Edmonton Oilers. Dubynk has only played two games with the Preds (and his statistics have been woeful at best - a 4.35 GAA and a .850 save percentage), he's a reclamation project and not a lost cause... Or at least he shouldn't be, unless Edmonton screwed his head up to the point that the tutelage of Mitch Korn (and a defensie-minded team in front of him) can't get him back to an even footing.
It won't be Dubynk in net tonight though, it'll be Carter Hutton. Hutton, whose stats line puts Dubynk's to shame (26 game starts, a .904 save percentage and a 2.87 GAA).
It's worth noting that while 2013 #3 overall pick Jonathan Drouin is still in juniors (24 goals, 60 assists, plus-37 in 39 games played), #4 selection Seth Jones continues his trial-by-fire acclimation to the NHL. He's played all 59 games with Nashville and posted up 21 points (6 goals, 15 assists) while being part of a defensive unit trying to cope with issues in net for Nashville (he's a minus-20 on the year).
No starter has been named for the Lightning in net, but it's hard to imagine Kristers Gudlevskis will be tabbed to start over Ben Bishop.
While the Preds offense doesn't seem all that productive they are a hell of a lot more potent than they let on if you look at special teams - they're seventh in the NHL with a 20.4% efficiency. That's 12 places higher in the league standings than the Lightning (17.1% conversion rate). Their penalty kill, however, is below that of Tampa's (79.6% kill-rate as to 80.5). Both squads are in the bottom third of the league on the PK.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation