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Spoiler and spoils; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Florida Panthers prview

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All games are important at this juncture, and a win can crush a teams dream while a loss can sidetrack a run to the record books.

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Where:  Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida
When: 7:30 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Litter Box Cats

"To the victor goes the spoils," is the traditional proverb that's been tossed around for who-knows how long. It was likely meant to build up the fact that victory brings with it the benefits that come by way of the triumphant conquest of the challenge, be it a battle or something mundane like finally figuring out all the bells and whistles you have on your new phone.  That's getting away from the matter at hand though (and no, I will not tell you about all the cool features on your Android phone and I'll also admit I'm completely lost to know what's on an iPhone that would leave you squealing in delight).

At this point in time in the NHL season, the spoils of victory are the opportunity to keep going after the regular season ends; the playoffs and chasing the glory that is Lord Stanley's Cup. The Tampa Bay Lightning has achieved enough of those victories leading up to this point that the playoffs are basically a lock (if not official).

Yet there are benchmarks that can be had, it was written about in Sunday's preview. Personal achievements are also still in the crosshairs (will Tyler Johnson or Nikita Kucherov cross 30 goals? Will Jonathan Drouin finally light the lamp again, which he hasn't done since December 15th? Can Ryan Callahan reach 30 assists for the first time in his career?) A grander role is at play tonight against the Florida Panthers, and it's a role that both clubs are enabled to play: The spoiler.

Ah, the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking at tying that46-wins-best-all-time benchmark... And the Panthers could use an added reason to get a victory tonight. The Cats want to keep their playoff chances alive (the Ottawa Senators now hold the last remaining wild card berth in the Eastern Conference, overtaking the Bruins last night with their victory) which basically makes tonight's win a necessity.

A victory by the Lightning almost completely forces the Panthers players to start thinking ahead to tee times at the golf course come April 12th, while a Lightning loss could be taken as upsetting to the Bruins as well as the Senators ("Hope survives! Drat!")

A win keeps Tampa in contention for the Atlantic Division regular season title and a first round playoff matchup with either Ottawa or Boston. A loss by Tampa Bay adds more certainty to the club facing the Detroit Red Wings in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. An argument could be had that the latter - Tampa Bay as the #2 seed in the East - is better for the club's playoff path as it allows the hot Ottawa Senators (...or always-tough-to-play Bruins) to have heated, physical first round games against the Montreal Canadiens.  Wearing down Les Habs or being worn down for round-two would be of benefit to the Bolts.

Yet this isn't just a potential spoiler affair, it's also a trap game. It's the second-to-last home game of the second-to-last homestand at the Amalie this season. The next opponent is the formidable and imposing (but cooled off some) Nashville Predators. The Preds are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and are in their own battle for playoff seeding and seeding alone at this point - they just lost the Central Division lead to the St. Louis Blues, and are only 1 point back, while the Chicago Blackhawks are all of 2 points behind them in the standings.

If the Lightning lose focus on the game at hand, it's the Panthers who can take 2 points tonight with a good effort.  If the Lightning want to write a place in the franchise history books - they need this game, this win, and at least another on the waning 2014-15 season.

Line combinations stayed the same from this weekend during the morning skate today:

Alex Killorn - Steven Stamkos - Jonathan Drouin
Ondrej Palat - Tyler Johnson - Nikita Kucherov
Vladislav Namestnikov - Valtteri Filppula - Ryan Callahan
Brendan Morrow - Brian Boyle - J.T. Brown

As was noted in a FanShot, it'll be Andrei Vasilevskiy in net tonight for Tampa Bay. Will Vasya see more starts in the remaining games after tonight so Ben Bishop gets some rest and is ready for the playoffs? It wouldn't be a bad idea.

Panther's rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad is fourth on the Panthers roster in points (11 goals, 24 assists, and a plus-9 plus /minus). One thing to take from that fact is how it underlines the Panthers lack of offensive production; Florida's given up 20 more goals than they've scored (177 for, 197 against). Don't read that as a goalie issue, as the Lightning (by comparison) has allowed 188 goals on the season... but scored 238.

The other thing Ekblad's performance sort of explains is why Lightning GM Steve Yzerman reportedly made a serious, serious play for the #1 overall selection in the 2014 NHL entry draft. The Lightning had the assets to make a push (draft picks, prospects) for a player they held in high regard... The price, however, required either Andrei Vasilevskiy or Jonathan Drouin to go to Florida, and that was a deal breaker. With Drouin's on-the-job training this season, you do have to wonder if Ekblad would have flourished in the same way he seems to be thriving this season with the Cats (or if he'd be brought along slower and more deliberately).

One last note: if this game is played on special teams, the Lightning is in position to improve their penalty kill ranking. The Panthers, as it stands, have converted on all of 15.1% of their power plays this season which puts them in the dregs of the NHL (27th in the league).  Then again, if this is a game of the spoiler, Florida should be out to try to bring down the Lightning penalty kill to send the message that the days of being a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time player in the NHL is at its end.

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