There were two winners on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning topped the Chicago Blackhawks at the Amalie. The direct benefactor was Tampa Bay as the club advanced to 56 points on the season, advancing to third overall in the Eastern Conference and behind Atlantic Division leading Florida by a single point. Winning seven games in a row has hoisted the club from outside the NHL playoff race to a prime player position.
The indirect winner from the 2-1 Lightning victory was tonight's opponent, the Florida Panthers. The Hawks had to play the flip side of back-to-back games, going down to Sunrise and getting smacked around like a demoralized crew in their 4-0 loss to the Cats. The Panthers had lost four in a row before last night, including their loss in Tampa on Tuesday. To win is a nice feat to boost the club and to do it against the Chicago Blackhawks is a morale building exhibition of ability for the club. It also came with the fact Florida hadn't played since Monday...A loss that indirectly benefitted the Lightning (the Oilers, who played in Tampa the next night).
Edging Chicago versus shutting them out, rested-a-day versus back-to-back play, enthused versus enthused in a match-up of Atlantic Division leaders. Did you ever expect that kind of notion to be tied to two Florida based NHL teams?
Roberto Luongo is slated to start. He was in the crease last night and turned away all of Chicago's 27 shots on goal. Luongo was also the netminder of record in last weekend's Cats loss to the Lightning, stopping 29 of 31 shots faced.
On the other side of the ice, Ben Bishop will be the starter for the Lightning. He allowed a goal on 27 shots faced in the win last Sunday. His save percentage actually increased by a fraction of a point to .928 after his foray against the Blackhawks. I'm surprised by this because of how few shots he faced and how he allowed Chicago's first shot to get by. His goals-against average has also dropped to 1.94.
As for the Tampa Bay lineup this evening in Sunrise - you can expect the same combinations of lines from recent games, with the only possible quirk being man-usage on the fourth line. It's up in the air if Erik Condra or Jonathan Marchessault play Unless head coach Jon Cooper makes an official decision mid-afternoon and announces it then. Consider it a game-time selection as of now.
An interesting quirk to keep in mind tonight and going forward through the rest of the Lightning's season is the assists total for defenseman Victor Hedman. Hedman is 4 assists behind former Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina (171 for Kubina, 167 for Hedman) and 20 assists behind Dan Boyle (187). Those three players, Boyle, Kubina and Hedman are ranked seventh, eighth and ninth all-time in assists for the club. That's quite an achievement for a defenseman who only reached 25 years old last month.