There are less than three weeks left in the 2015-16 NHL regular season, and while the Lightning's road-heavy days of February and March have concluded, what the club will undertake now is the final homestand of the regular season. Six games are to be played at the Amalie with the first three being playoff-bound clubs.... Well, at least for the moment. While Saturday's contest against the Florida Panthers is ensured to be a match between teams destined for the post-season (unless disaster takes place), the first two games are against wild card teams who need to stave off the Philadelphia Flyers.
That is what makes tonight against the Detroit Red Wings such a playoff-caliber game. The Wings are a single point ahead of Philly. One point keeps them in a playoff spot... but they also have one less game to be played compared to the Flyers (72 games played as to 71). That means the Flyers have an extra opportunity to usurp Detroit.
Now here's the other factor: the tight-tight race at the top of the Atlantic Division. Detroit is all of 3 points behind the Boston Bruins for the third place spot in the division (and the Wings have a game in-hand on Boston). They're four points behind the Lightning for second in the division. It'd be best if Detroit pushed itself now because its mixed schedule of these last few weeks of the season has its own truly playoff-caliber games: A back-to-back series against the Flyers and the Bruins on April 6th and 7th.
Things may be settled by then. If not, then that back-to-back will truly make or break Detroit's hope for the 2015-16 post-season.
Yet the stand for the Bolts has its own importance and opportunities for redemption and resurgence. While the playoff-caliber games start the six game, end season home schedule, two of the latter three games are against Atlantic Division clubs that the Bolts failed against on the road during their road-heavy days of recent weeks: the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Those, along with the New Jersey Devils (game 41 at the Amalie, the final home game), should not be taken as simply as tune-up contests against the lower rungs of the league. Isn't that part of what helped paint losses against the Habs and Leafs in recent weeks? Seeing the opponents, in their own home venues, as also-rans? If so, I think the advice to the Lightning that all Bolts fans is: Don't go that way again, don't pull that again. Be the Lightning, we'll be the thunder, and the storm will be dominant.
The matter at hand is the Detroit Red Wings. This is the season-series finale. The Red Wings have won two of three games against the Bolts (3-1 and 2-1 victories). The Lightning's own win against Detroit came on February 3rd (3-1). While that paints a picture of what to expect with a final score, I wouldn't assume the loser will only have a single goal.
The Wings have 5 players with 40 or more points, with a 6th (Gustav Nyquist) at 39 points. Yet, after the contributions by Henrik Zetterberg, Dylan Larkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Tatar and Justin Abdelkader (along with Nyquist), there's a big drop off in point production... I mean, would you expect the likes of center Brad Richards to only have 23 points on the season (9 goals, 14 assists)? Mind you, Bradmaster has only played in 58 games this season. A lot of Red Wings (with very few exceptions) have missed considerable action through the season. That's going to dim point production for anyone.
Speaking of banged up: Valtteri Filppula was wearing a grey jersey during morning skate; he's likely out for tonight. Also missing entirely from the morning skate was RW Ryan Callahan. Cally missed the Arizona Coyotes game with an undisclosed injury. Don't expect depth-addition recalls from Syracuse.
Ben Bishop will start between the pipes for the Lightning. The big story that's been getting exposure since Saturday night is how Bishop now has 15 shutouts in his 188 total games played with the Lightning since being acquired from the Ottawa Senators in 2013. That's the franchise lead, folks, which Nikolai Khabibulin used to hold. A minor coincidence of note: Bishop's 15th shutout of his Lightning career was achieved against the Coyotes - the team that we acquired Khabibulin from in 2001.
Bishop's GAA is 2.02, which leads the NHL among regular starting goalies, and save percentage stands at .928, second in the NHL behind the St. Louis Blues Brian Elliott. While common NHL star goalie names will be dropped in awards talk in the spring, Bishop needs serious consideration for the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie.