It's the late season in the NHL; the final (full) month of play begins with seismic anomaly in the standings of the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division specifically.
Two teams in the state of Florida are in playoff contention at the same time.
Tampa Bay sits near the top of the Atlantic Division and pretty high among the general Eastern Conference teams... If the things continue in the direction they've been going in (meaning the team doesn't suddenly veer into the tank) the Bolts will make the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time in almost a decade (2005-06, 2006-07).
The Florida Panthers are currently on the outside, looking in... But they're knocking on the door and trying to enter.Tthey have 67 points and are 4 points behind the Boston Bruins for the final Eastern Conference wild card berth. If the Panthers oust Boston, if another team (the Philadelphia Flyers) does not overtake the Bruins and Panthers, it'll be the first time since 1996 that both Florida hockey teams make the playoffs.
Florida has turned around its season pretty well. Earlier this season, the only narrative coming out of Sunrise wasn't inspired by local media and the team but the general hockey media and critical fans shocked at the attendance numbers at BB&T Center. The team wasn't playing so well (early on, it'd be pretty easy too guess the Panthers wouldn't make the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 seasons) and management had implemented a new ticketing policy. Both pretty much encouraged people to spend money elsewhere and disregard the Panthers.
But an NHL season is a marathon and isn't done outright after a poor start (unless you're the Edmonton Oilers). Slowly and steadily, the Panthers got their act together and started earning points. Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad is showing why he was the #1 overall draft pick in the 2014 NHL entry draft (9 goals, 23 assists, a plus/minus of plus-8), Nick Bjugstad leads the team in scoring (22 goals, 15 assists) and unlike a lot of clubs, there seems to be a lot more gradual a descent in production from roster players (meaning while the Panthers offense isn't overly potent, there's a solid contribution coming from more than a select few players).
Oh, yeah, that goalie dude who likes Twitter has been pretty okay too. Take Roberto Luongo out of Canada and the harsh spotlight, remove the pressure and you've got yourself a formidable force in net. Lu's record this season is 23-16-11, a 2.40 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
With the engine sputtering for the Boston Bruins this season, the Panthers have found their way into the playoff picture. If they find their spot in the wild card slot remains to be seen... And also will be dependent in part on the three remaining games against the Lightning (as well as the Bolts play against Boston - three remaining games in that series as well).
Can the Cats make the playoffs? Will we see the first ever Lightning/Panthers playoff series? We've got a several weeks until we find out for sure.
At any rate, the Panthers played last night against the Sabres and won 5-3. They allowed only 14 shots on goal and... well, that's evidence Luongo had himself a bad game. Limited shots faced might mean he's in net again this afternoon. If not, Al Montoya will get the nod.
The Lightning actually got a few power play goals against the Blackhawks on Friday night (...may wonders never cease!) and improved statistically to a 17.6 effectiveness with the man-advantage. That percentage would likely be a lot more tolerable if the Bolts weren't known for their 5-on-5 potency (if you're effective at scoring at even strength; why struggle to score when you have fewer opponents on ice? They're ranked 20th overall in the league, which is seven places higher than the Florida Panthers power play ranking. 15.3% is a number I'd think management wants to improve on before the season ends.
On the penalty kill, there's a 17 place gap in the rankings between Tampa Bay's kill unit (ranked 7th with a 83.6% kill-rate) and Florida's (24th in the league, with a 79.7 effectiveness). Between the status of this game being the flip-side of back-to-back contests and the weakness of the penalty-kill, Tampa Bay should see this as an opportunity to improve their power play stats.
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation
- Live stream of Tampa Bay Lightning coverage on Twitter