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Standing, not settling; Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers preview

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The Lightning still contend for the Atlantic Division title, but only if they come to play their last three games of the season.

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Nikita Kucherov needs 2 goals to reach 30 on the NHL season.
Nikita Kucherov needs 2 goals to reach 30 on the NHL season.
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise, Florida
When: 7 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Litter Box Cats

Thursday night's loss by the Lightning to the Ottawa Senators was upsetting, especially if you weren't looking at the scoreboard and following other games. The last update this writer had seen at the time was Montreal leading the Washington Capitals 3-2 and the Detroit Red Wings leading the Bruins 2-1.  Tampa Bay loses in overtime and out-of-context, the Atlantic Division playoff seeding is basically set right?

Yeah, well, those who are reading this and who were paying attention to the results of Thursday night will either roll their eyes or be prompted to scan for something more meaty in this write up because the dread of certainty fell apart as the night went on; Les Habs lost in overtime to the Capitals and the Red Wings imploded against Boston. Boston and Detroit are tied with 93 points... and if the tepid pace of Detroit continues, they very well may fall out of playoff contention with thanks to resurgence by the B's as well as the Hamburglar Effect in Ottawa.

Montreal played last night and again, went to extra time and lost. Montreal is 2 points ahead of Tampa Bay in the standings and no longer has the benefit of games in-hand on the Lightning. Montreal has the day off but will be back in action tomorrow against the Florida Panthers, tonight's foe for the Bolts.

There's a conflict in this game and it's not sympathy toward the south Florida crowd (love ya, Litter Box Cats friends). The sympathy sentiment comes from the less-than-a-percentage-point chance for the Panthers to make the playoffs. The true conflict of tonight's affair in Sunrise is the schedule. The goo d news, the road trip ends with this game for Tampa Bay and there will be five days to rest and recover between tonight and next Thursday when the Lightning face the New Jersey Devils.

The bad news is the potential trap this game poses if the players are looking forward to the looming break in action. That mentality is settling. If the Lightning players get comfortable in the notion they've got time off coming, it sets a bad example attitude for the playoffs: why go full-tilt when things aren't important until later on?

Some have brought up in game threads here on the site that this attitude seems to be in place at times during game play; the team didn't come to compete, didn't come to play, only starts trying to do either later on when a hole has been dug. Why come to compete in this one anyway? The table is set for the playoffs generally, ain't it? Tampa Bay will have home ice advantage with the #2 seed, they'll face either Boston or Detroit in the opening round, and those are the games that matter right now, the ones that don't start until April 15.

That's lazy, that's non-ambitious and that won't get your name on the Stanley Cup. It was the drive and playoff ambition that got the Lightning this far. If they're ready to settle, it'll get them a date with the golf course and the offseason sooner rather than later when the playoffs start.

The span between games gives the team every reason to go full-tilt into this one.  The only reason they might want to take it easy tonight would be to leave the Panthers with energy to take down Montreal tomorrow. That's a chicken-or-the-egg thing, though - beat the Cats and tie Montreal in the standings or lose to the Panthers so they can keep Montreal at bay tomorrow and prohibit their distancing themselves further in the standings.

Tyler Johnson participated in the morning skate at BB&T Center in full gear. Don't read into that as him playing. At best that is a game-time decision. Jon Cooper said on Thursday that Johnson and defenseman Victor Hedman are out until next Thursday... Johnson had participated in the morning skate in Ottawa before that statement had gone to the press. Johnson is a game time decision while Hedman? Victor may not be back until the season finale.

Nikita Kucherov's slowed goal-scoring pace didn't get feature writing coverage like Steven Stamkos' goal drought. Kuch is still only 2 goals shy of hitting 30 for the season. A nice high point to reach for a second-year player, wouldn't you think?

Speaking of round numbers, consider this a warning: future hall of famer and functioning NHL'er Jarominr Jagr is 2 points shy of hitting 1800 points for his career.

The potential for a goalie duel is out there for tonight as well: Roberto Luongo will be between the pipes for the Panthers while Ben Bishop gets the nod for the Lightning. Lu's numbers aren't all world like you see from Andrew Hammond or Carey Price (.922 save percentage, a 2.32 goals against average. When compared to Ben Bishop's numbers for the season (2.36 goals against average and a .914 save percentage) it paints the picture that this could be a close one... A goalie duel, but not in the "he who scores first wins" mentality; it's also where an injury depleted Lightning defense puts more pressure on Bish to perform.

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