Three games in four days await the Tampa Bay Lightning, starting tonight in Newark against the New Jersey Devils. While tonight has weight to it as the Devils vie to return to wild card status, the true storm is Sunday and Monday as the Lightning play back-to-back games against the Bruins and Maple Leafs on the road. The Lightning and the Bruins are tied in points in the Atlantic Division standings (72) but the Lightning hold the advantage by way of wins (34 as to 33) with a game in-hand. Toronto might be in the gutter of the NHL at current but it does not change the fact Tampa Bay will be making a foray into the hockey media epicenter the night the NHL trade deadline passes. That's one hell of a distraction to deal with.
Tonight, though, it's New Jersey. The Devils, with 67 points in 62 games played, are up against a wall in their playoff quest. The last Eastern Conference wild card spot is held by the Pittsburgh Penguins - 1 point in front of the Devils but with 3 games in-hand. With only 20 games left to play in their season, going with 13 wins or more might assure them a playoff spot. Maybe. It's one hell of a trial for the club that's been moving in a new direction all season; Lou Lamoriello is out as GM - he went to the Maple Leafs -- and a retooling of the club in the front office and on ice has been part of the season. Ray Shero is the grand architect for the team now and John Hynes is the head coach.
New Jersey played last night against the Columbus Blue Jackets and it didn't go well for them. Was it a trap game? Perhaps; you would not expect the Blue Jackets to score 6 goals on 24 shots on goal. Both goalies, Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid played last night, with Kinkaid taking the bulk of the night (40 minutes). With only 19:45 in ice-time, expect to see Schneider back in net for the Devils tonight. Schneider has had a very strong season for the Devils: a 2.11 GAA, a .926 save percentage, all acquired on 52 game starts (26-20-6).
Knowing the Devils got smacked around last night by a team that spent most of the season in last place in the overall NHL, expect them to raise their game and come out charging against the Lightning.
With the reassignment of Andrei Vasilevskiy last night to the Syracuse Crunch, odds are that Ben Bishop is to start tonight in Newark off the Bolts, with Kristers Gudlevskis only joining the team to back him up. Vasy will likely rejoin eh team and start in Toronto but then again, Gudlevskis is overdue for a chance with Tampa Bay. His lone start, in October, was one heck of a showing: Going to overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks (31 saves, a 1-0 loss though). Gudlevskis numbers in the AHL don't reflect what he did way back when (2.96 GAA, .902 save percentage) but the Crunch this season are a much different beast compared to the overall product in Tampa Bay.
Nikita Kucherov has been practicing with the Lightning the past two days and steadily improving on his hurting status. As of this writing there is no word if he'll be in the lineup tonight for the Bolts but odds are he will find his way back into the fray. Jonathan Marchessault has filled Kucherov's role respectively the past two games on the second line with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. In Tampa Bay's four game win
streak fluke, Marchessault has been on a point-per game streak (1 goal, 3 assists).