Was the last time the Tampa Bay Lightning played a crucial game against a Western Conference team the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals? Mind you, I'm not talking about crucial in the sense of make-it-or-break-it, all-or-nothing, gottawinohmygodpleasewin for the Lighting; a win would be nice and it'd aid in the quest to win the division. No, tonight is crucial for the former Thrashers of Atlanta, the Winnipeg Jets, who are battling to reclaim a wild card slot in the Western Conference. The Jets have 78 points at the moment, placing them outside the playoff fray by a single point. There aren't many points between clubs in the West race and those inside (Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, Los Angeles) are on the cusp of falling out of contention, those on the outside (the Jets, San Jose, Dallas, Colorado) are close to wiggling into a playoff spot.
There are only 13 games left in the season for the Lightning when you count tonight, the start of a season-long six-game homestand. In the face of the adversity caused by injuries as well as the idea of putting distance between themselves and the Detroit Red Wings (as well as passing Montreal in the points race), tonight is a game the Bolts want to win much like Thursday's disappointing shootout loss was a game TB wanted to win. It's a game they should want to win as prep for Monday's contest - another head-to-head battle with Les Habitants de Montreal.
Yeah, well, Winnipeg needs to win tonight if they want to continue to contend for the 2015 NHL playoffs. They have 14 games left this season and of those games, only three are against teams currently out of the playoffs. Only one team (the Edmonton Oilers) has been eliminated from playoff contention.
In essence, the Jets have to rise to the occasion because the challenge doesn't dissipate going forward. It's a truth for Tampa Bay as well; injuries don't create excuses to take a night off.
The Jets retooled before the trade deadline, picking up guys the Lightning have played against for years in different deals with different organizations: Lee Stempniak (Rangers), Jiri Tlusty (Hurricanes), Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Joel Armia, and Brendan Lemieux (Buffalo). These deals have all amounted to the biggest roster shake up since the franchise relocated from Atlanta to Winnipeg.
Have they helped, though? Since the Evander Kane-Tyler Myers blockbuster on February 11th, the Jets have gone 5-5-2. Getting points in seven of those 12 games is nice, but clubs like Minnesota and Los Angeles have just been better in that span. Just treading water is not an option when a degree of parity is in place and the playoffs remain on the line.
While the Bolts will keep missing the O of TKO, Winnipeg has their own injury complication o continue to deal with: leading goal-scorer Bryan Little (24 goals this season) has been ruled out for tonight. Andrew Ladd is next on the team in goals (23) and also leads the club in points (55). Little and Ladd are the club's only 20-goal scorers, the team also has only seven players with 20 or more points on the season.
By comparison, Tampa Bay has 13 players who have not crossed the 20-point mark on the season. Of those 13, only three (Cedric Paquette, Brendan Morrow and Andrej Sustr) have been lineup regulars this season. Tyler Johnson, who is good at the hockey if you didn't know, leads the club in points with 65 (25 goals, 40 assists) and is second on the club with a plus / minus of plus-32 (the TKO trio, Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov, lead the team in plus-minus).
An oddity that's in place for tonight is... Tampa Bay has a better power play unit than the Jets. Perhaps it's an oxymoron to say "Lightning power play is better" because both units are lowly ranked... not league-leading low mind you but out of the top-half of the league / flirting with the bottom 3rd of the NHL. Tampa Bay's power play efficiency has risen (...or the league in general has descended) in recent days; the Bolts are ranked 18th in the NHL with an 18.0% conversion rate. That's a tenth of a percentage point better than Winnipeg (17.9%) who is ranked 20th in the league with the man-advantage. The difference in point production makes Tampa's power play woes more head-scratching than Winnipeg's.
Winnipeg's 80.8 kill-rate when down a man is 21st in the league. While the Bolts sit much higher in the PK proficiency rankings (83.5%, ranked 8th in the NHL) I do want to remind that Palat, Paquette and Braydon Coburn are all regulars on the PK and all are out... So while there's opportunity for the Lightning to improve its power play conversion rates when given the opportunity tonight, the same may very well go for Winnipeg...
Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start in net for Tampa Bay. Vasya is 6-3-1 with a .917 save percentage and 2.37 GAA. His counterpart for tonight's foray is our old nemesis Ondrej Pavelec. Pavelec has a lackluster record (13-14-7) but passable numbers (.910 save percentage, 2.56 GAA).
Other Game Coverage:
- Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview
- Full coverage on SB Nation
- Live stream of Tampa Bay Lightning coverage on Twitter