Where: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario | When: 7:30 PM EST
Radio: 970 AM WFLA | Television: FS Florida Sun | Twitter: Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Pension Plan Puppets, Blue and White Brotherhood
Its official: Steven Stamkos to Toronto-- along with the other active members of the Tampa Bay Lightning. What do we get in return? Two points if the Bolts defeat the Maple Leafs tonight, but you already know that much now don't you?
The narrative presented by the major hockey media who are housed in Toronto - and it's been scuttlebutt gestating for a week with thanks to the Maple Leafs being off since their victory on December 8 against the New Jersey Devils - is Steven Stamkos and his future with the Lightning. The game itself, the contest between two Atlantic Division foes, hasn't been the discussion point... It's been Stamkos and speculation (that's probably driven Lyle Richardson of Spector's Hockey crazy because he's had to report on it over and over again) about supposed issues with head coach Jon Cooper, or about contract demands, and about the Toronto Hometown DiscountTM that'll be applied when he agrees to terms to a Maple Leafs contract on July 1, 2016. It's all happening! It's all happening! It's... all wishful thinking with thanks to the Leafs being in rebuilding mode and in need of a pick-me-up. Some of it (Stammer vs. Cooper) is talk that's carried since the Stanley Cup Finals last summer and yet seems to be a national angle without local avenues (meaning Tampa Bay based media) confirming it.
The relevant facts of the moment is the Leafs have the second-to-last point total in the NHL, they have 25 points in 28 games played makes them a sight better than the Columbus Blue Jackets (who have 25 in 31 games played). That carries weight in tonight's game because Tampa Bay played the Blue Jackets last night and it was close. If things were close between TB and Columbus, how will the Bolts fair against a well-rested Toronto roster? Toronto is 5-4-1 in their past 10 games, their goal differential is minus-12 but 64 goals-for and 76 goals-against is a lot more manageable than the differential Columbus has (75 for, 95 against, minus-20).
Bottom dwelling status be damned, this is a challenge game for the Lightning with thanks to the physical side as well as the distraction side by way of Starmmergeddon.
For the first time in a while, and not likely happening again, the Bolts are playing a club that lacks a 20-point scorer. James Van Riemsdyk has 17 points on the season (8 goals, 9 assists). They do have a double-digit goal scorer in Leo Komarov (10) and a trio at 8 goals (Van Riemsdyk, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau and Joffrey Lupul). Toronto's offensive drought compares pretty soundly to what the Lightning have going for them (two double-digit goal scorers in Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and only Stamkos has over 20 points this season). Production is not the issue, it's actually goaltending.
Jonathan Bernier was brought in with much fanfare from the Los Angeles Kings via trade back in 2013. Bernier had been talked about by fans and media as a possible candidate for a Lightning goaltending acquisition. That talk ended with the trade for Ben Bishop during the 2013 season.
Bernier's numbers as a member of the Maple Leafs is ... well, a mixed bag. His numbers to start his career with the club are sound (55 games played, 49 starts, 26-19-7, a .923 save percentage and a 2.68 GAA), coming during Randy Carlyle's reign as head coach with his "who cares?" attitude toward sound defense in front of the crease. 2013-14 isn't 2015-16 though and Bernier in Toronto has been a focal point for anguish by fans and media, and his numbers sort of reflect it - he's winless in 9 starts (0-8-1), has a .8888 save percentage and a 3.28 GAA. His last 4 starts have been with the AHL Toronto Marlies in a conditioning stint where he was more than sound (1.25 GAA, .948 save percentage and a 3-0-1 record in that stint).
Bernier is slated to start tonight for the Leafs, and he's got favorable conditions with the opposition - a hurting and offensively struggling group who played the night before - to make a sound showing in net.
There's no telling how the Lightning lineup shifts tonight or if it shifts at all. The Bolts played with an 11 forward, 7 defenseman roster split last night and scratched call-up Yanni Gourde who we expected would make his NHL debut against the Blue Jackets. He participated in an optional morning skate but confirmation if he'll play or not will come later today.
Another goalie of recent conditioning in the AHL will get the start tonight, that being Andrei Vasilevskiy for the Lightning. Vasy looked uncomfortable to Jon Cooper during the loss to the Kings in LA which is part of the reason for the send-down - to get him time as a starter and honed for another go-around.