Back-to-back games over the weekend have given way to back-to-back in a different sort of term use. It's not consecutive game dates playing out but it's consecutive opposition for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the best team of the Western Conference. Sunday afternoon, that team was the Anaheim Ducks with 75 points to their name. Sunday evening, the crown had been conceded to the Nashville Predators who won their play-date against the Florida Panthers
There isn't much of a reprieve from this point forward in the season. Yeah, the Lightning have games remaining against the Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres, but they also have a month ahead dominated by the Atlantic Division, where bubble playoff teams actually do exist (Boston is currently six points in front of the Florida Panthers who are clawing their way into contention). Henrik Lundqvist's injury adds an additional degree of drama to that fight for Florida to get into the playoffs - the New York Rangers hitting a rough patch may bounce them from playoff contention... if the Panthers keep winning.
Playoff seeding is another item in play in the Atlantic, where everyone has games in-hand on the Lightning. There's a good chance that even with strong play in the remaining 27 games of the season that the Lightning end up in the 2nd or 3rd seed in the division's final standings, all because the Red Wings and Canadiens have extra games still on their schedule and only 2 points less than Eastern Conference leading Tampa Bay.
An argument can and should be made if Predators backstop Pekka Rinne is the best goalie in the NHL this season or if it's Carey Price with Les Habs de Montreal. Rinne's numbers are...well, solid is an understatement: a 2.02 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage. Brian Elliot's numbers were pretty good when the Bolts went into St. Louis last week, Rinne's numbers at the moment compare to what Elliot had back then. Translation: expect a goalie duel tonight, as well as no favors from the Nashville defense; Nashville only allows 28.7 shots per-game. That's 11th in the NHL and a shot less than what the Lightning are mustering per game (29.6).
This isn't your
father's older brother's Smashville Predators team where defense trumped offense. Filip Forsberg, in his first full season with the Preds, has 48 points and leads the team in goal scoring with 18... He's also responsible enough to be a plus-21. It wouldn't be wrong to compare the Swede to Tyler Johnson in point production; Johnson has 52 points in 53 games played and is a plus-27 on the season. That's about all they compare on as Forsberg is 5 inches taller than Johnson and 4 years younger.
There's more offense to go around than Forsberg as Mike Ribeiro has 45 points, defensemen Roman Joel has 37 and everyone's favorite lug Shea Weber (and I do mean that in a respectful, loving term) is next on the team with 36 points.
Oh, and the 2013 draft class member of the squad, Seth Jones, has 5 goals and 14 assists.
Meanwhile, the Jacked Pack seems to have been interrupted a mite during the morning skate at Bridgestone Arena. Cedric Paquette left the session and headed to the locker room. It wasn't clear at to the reasoning why. Paquette is now a game-time decision.
Defenseman Jason Garrison returned to practice for the Lightning, he's missed the past few games with injury. His presence is some major minutes that the Lightning surely missed. He worked on a pairing with Luke Witkowski during the morning skate. He'll likely be noted as a game-time decision but likely will play tonight.
As for the goalie situation for the Bolts, Vasya cometh tonight. The young Russian's numbers have declined a touch since his promotion to the NHL, but his lights-out stuff wasn't going to remain the same no matter what (four starts previously was a very small sample size of work). Andrei Vasilevskiy's numbers still remain pretty damn formidable though: a .934 save percentage with a 1.96 GAA in his 6 appearances with the Lightning. Vasya starts, said Cooper, because the team didn't want to ride Bishop (who played in both games this past weekend).
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