I'm a little irked at the NHL schedule in recent days. Perhaps the uneven conference alignment is what's brought it to pass when schedules were crafted, but at the same time... it irks me. Especially in comparison to the general Lightning schedule this season.
Let's just rehash how the Bolts schedule was aligned: the season started with a token game against the Panthers, a schedule-conflict-forced-rescheduling game against Montreal, but mostly games against the Metro Division, a smattering of contests against the West. Buffalo weeded its way into the first half of the season and the Metro Division was generally erased by January 27th. The Western Conference was largely dealt with in February and early March, while the Atlantic Division schedule didn't start in earnest until January, with the majority of the games being played this month.
The Lightning has one game left against the Metro - the second-to-last game of the season is against the New Jersey Devils. Tonight the Lightning end their regular-season schedule against the Western Conference as they face Nashville. It's Nashville playing on the road in the east (and other Western Conference teams doing the same, with Eastern Conference teams venturing to the left coast in the middle of the playoff race) that bugs me to high hell.
The Nashville Predators have no standings or playoff contest going on with the Lightning. While both clubs are formidable, they're not direct rivals like the other teams in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division specifically. The two teams the Lightning are monitoring in the standings, the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings both have games tonight and they're both playing West teams (the Winnipeg Jets and San Jose Sharks, respectively). While a Canada-on-Canada game will draw attention in the great white north, it's still a head scratching scheduling affair when Les Habs should be more focuses on showing the Eastern Conference they will rule in the Second Season, or the Winnipeg Jets are underlining their dark horse contender status.
Should the west be in the east this late in the regular season or the east in the west? I don't like that. Get those games out of the way at one big cross-conference time of the season (October through February, or a more compact portion) and leave the divisional play (and the stoking of rivalries, which the NHL powers-that-be are always concerned about) for the most pressing time of the season: Now.
Yet the schedule is set, the games are being played and Tampa Bay, Montreal and the New York Rangers are all in a position to clinch playoff berths tonight. The Lightning will clinch with a point (as little as an overtime/shootout loss) coupled with a loss by the Boston Bruins. The B's have a date with the Anaheim Ducks at TD Garden that gets underway at 7 PM EDT.
Either you're apathetic and will just wait for things to become official whenever it happens, or you're scoreboard watching tonight. Take your pick.
It was an optional skate this morning for the Lightning and Cedric Paquette declared himself ready to return to the lineup. While this gives an added boost to the Lightning (who will have two of three bodies lost on March 10th back in the lineup) it does create a head scratching curiosity - if Paquette is back, who sits? It shouldn't be forward Vladislav Namestnikov who has been playing well since his recall to fill the void left by Paquette. It also likely won't be earning-his-time Jonathan Drouin (who still hasn't scored a goal since December 15th - I repeat that fact as encouragement for #27; get it done Jon... Show us your magic). That's 100 days as o yesterday. With Drouin seeing playing time on the wing of Steven Stamkos (and opposite Alex Killorn), I'll make the request to the team captain to set up your wingman. Stamkos has his 40 goals on the season and while getting more would be nice, getting this weight off Drouin's shoulders would be nicer.
The Lightning won't just have the potential to make the playoffs tonight, they also have the potential to put their stamp on franchise history and set a new club record. They've already put themselves in the books with their still-incomplete home schedule record of 30-7-1.
Ben Bishop likely starts tonight for the Lightning as he did not participate in the optional morning skate, and I guess this should be seen as mandatory in the face of the fact the Bolts may be (unconfirmed as of this writing) facing the force known as Pekka Rinne. Rinne's numbers are sensational (39-15-4, a 2.05 GAA, a .927 save percentage) but media bias puts Carey Price as the only choice for the Vezina or Hart Trophy this season. Price's GAA is twenty-tenths of a point lower than Rinne's (1.88), and his save percentage is ten-tenths of a point higher (.937), but it just seems wrong to write off what Pekka's done in favor of what Carey is doing; if Price is the MVP because of how he's carried the Canadiens, Rinne has enabled Nashville's success just as much.
To further insert an opinion into this preview, I'd really like Ben Bishop to see less playing time the next few games than he's been given during this stand. The last thing the Lightning want is to lose Bishop due to an injury in the playoffs, or having a rusty Andrei Vasilevskiy if that happens. We went through this last year with Anders Lindback when Bishop went down; the club had no faith in Lindback but the guy could play when he was given consistent time. He's furthered that sentiment since his acquisition in Buffalo. Oh, sure, the Sabres in front of him suck, but he's doing something he wasn't expected to do when he was brought in: performing. A .927 save percentage reflects his effort; a 2.67 GAA reflects the team in front of him.
Vasya hadn't laced in more than a week when he started against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. Allowing 3 goals within 2 minutes sort of reflected the fact he (nor the Lightning) were playing at the top of their game. The kid was promoted to the NHL not out of desperation but because he was ready while Evgeni Nabokov couldn't carry his light load. The Bolts resting Ben Bishop so he's ready and rested for the start of the NHL playoffs on April 15th isn't a bad idea, nor is giving Vasilevskiy extra time as a starter at the NHL level.
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