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Early playoff hockey; Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs preview

The importance of the opportunity tonight for both the Lightning and the Leafs is immense.

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USA TODAY Sports

Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario
When: 7 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Television: | Radio: 970 AM WFLA
Opponent Coverage: Pension Plan Puppets, The Leafs Nation

It's a log jam atop the Atlantic Division. By atop I don't mean the very, very top, as the Bruins are demolishing all comers at this point (they're on a 10 game winning streak and have 99 points), but second place is still pretty high in the standings. The Tampa Bay Lightning re-captured second in the division with their win on Monday, but lost it by way of a Les Habitants De Montreal victory last night. The only reason TB took over second (briefly) was because they still had a game in-hand on the Montreal Canadiens.

After yesterday's win by the Habs and loss by the Toronto Maple Leafs to Detroit, the Lightning has two games in-hand again on both opponents.

The Habs are 6-4-0 and the Leafs are 4-4-2 in their past 10, as are the Bolts. So things are a bit mired in the jockeying for playoff seeding, and they raise the importance of tonight in Toronto.

I've been saying this since the first meeting of the season between the Leafs and the Lightning in late January, these head-to-head matchups are exceedingly important, and the Bolts have not been able to take advantage of those games to put some distance between them and the Leafs. Instead, the Lightning have seen their 7 point advantage over Toronto erased, and have been guilty of conceding 4 points to the Leafs directly in its two previous meetings, being outscored 7-3 in the process.

Tonight has the makings of playoff hockey if both clubs approach it while knowing the weight of the game in the standings. The one thing that will hurt the intensity, though, is the back-to-back aspect of this game for both teams; Toronto was in Detroit last night, ending a five game road trip with a loss, while Tampa Bay will head to Ottawa to play the Senators tomorrow.

Games in-hand and strength of schedule be damned, the Bolts can't concede more ground to Toronto, unless they're looking to start fending off Detroit for a wild card spot. Toronto, likewise, can't let this opportunity slip away.

The Bolts will be skating the same lineup they've had success with the past few games, which has a forward group that looks like this:

Ondrej Palat - Valtteri Filppula - Ryan Callahan
Alex Killorn- Steven Stamkos - Tyler Johnson
J.T. Brown - Tom Pyatt - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Malone - Nate Thompson - B.J. Crombeen

While Stamkos' timing is improving and he's getting his offensive mojo back, the potency of Palat - Filppula - Callahan can't be denied.

Speaking of potency, that's Toronto in a nutshell; seven players are at 30 points or more this season, with Phil Kessel leading the team with 73 (34 goals, 39 assists; not bad for someone Toronto media has tried running out of town in the past). The team's plus-minus collectively leaves something to be desired, but with their power play efficiency (4th in the league; 24/217 or 20.7%) and the strength of their goalie tandem of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, they can get by with being inefficient...

Ben Bishop gets the start for the Lightning tonight, and it'll likely be James Reimer in net for Toronto.