Earlier this week, the Lightning was out of a playoff spot in the NHL standings. Two victories later and Tampa Bay is third place in the Atlantic Division, tied with the Detroit Red Wings (but holding the upper hand by way of number of wins - 32 to 29). In essence, a week turnaround had the Bolts at second place in the division, then out of the playoffs, and then back among high contenders. That's the tight-tight race in the Eastern Conference standings in a nutshell: you're thisclose to being on the verge or the brink.
The Carolina Hurricanes are more evidence of the tight-tight situation in the East, on the verge of getting inside contention but on the brink of falling further to the wayside. They started the season as also-rans, looming above the overall league cellar occupied by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Yet things changed as the season progressed, the team got better. Cam Newton isn't why, by the way. Carolina is at 64 points in the standings, that's sixth place in the Metro Division. The club sits a single point behind the New Jersey Devils and 2 points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the #8 overall seed in the conference (read: playoff slot). It puts weight on this game for the Hurricanes to grab points, just as the game has standings weight for Tampa Bay as the Red Wings are playing the Rangers - the need to keep up or gain distance is necessary.
Jordan Staal leads the Canes in scoring with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists). He's one of six players with 30+ points on the Hurricanes roster (Victor Rask, Justin Faulk, Jeff Skinner, Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal being the others). That's a much more even scoring presence compared to the Lightning, who are led by Nikita Kucherov (24 goals, 25 assists) and Steven Stamkos (24 goals, 20 assists) and Victor Hedman (6 goals, 30 assists)... That's all of three players above 30 points scored.
At the same time, the key component for tonight's game isn't necessarily lighting the lamp as so much preventing that from happening. As of this writing no starting goalies have been confirmed but odds are Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in crease tonight for the Lightning. Ben Bishop started yesterday afternoon in Pittsburgh, stopping 37 of 39 shots on way to the Bolts victory. Vasy's last start was actually in Ottawa last weekend for the Syracuse Crunch... So a well rested man will guard the crease... but is he rusty? His GAA has left something to be desired (2.88) and save percentage is much less assured than what Bishop has been posting (.907 compared to .922) and the fact is the team playing in front of him had played yesterday won't make things any easier depending on how worn down and worn out they are.
Note this though:
Bishop not taking part in optional #tblightning morning skate, generally means he's starting, but not confirmed— Erik Erlendsson (@erlendssonTBO) February 21, 2016
Update / correction: Vasilevskiy started Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets at Amalie Arena... The collpase/shootout win for the Lightning. Also -- it's been confirmed Ben Bishop will start for the Lightning.
As for Carolina, no goalie has been confirmed on their end either, though Cam Ward (2.34 GAA, .909 sage %) is listed as the likely starter for the Canes. It's either him or Eddie Lack (2.69 GAA, .901 save %). Unlike Tampa Bay, the Hurricanes had yesterday off so starting the #1 netminder is probable.
One other note: Jon Cooper said that forward Cedric Paquette is okay after his blocked-shot incident from yesterday's game. That does not confirm if Paquette will be playing tonight or not... I wouldn't be surprised to see him held out but anything's possible.