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Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs Preview: Staring down elimination

Can the Bolts stave off mathematical elimination? Tonight’s the night we find out.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning (39-30-10) at Toronto Maple Leafs (39-29-15): Game 80

Time: 7:30 pm Eastern Time

Location: Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario

Broadcast/Streaming: TVAS, TSN4, SUN

Opponent SBNation Site: Pension Plan Puppets

NHL Playoff Race

There is one amusing scenario in which Toronto and Tampa both tie in a number of categories, reducing the outcome to an actual coin toss:

In tonight’s more realistic scenario, if Tampa doesn’t win in regulation or overtime, they’re eliminated. This is the game that matters.

In the words of Geo, "Win in regulation and we still have a shot. Win in overtime and we still have a shot, but it's tiny and we have to hope the tiebreakers go our way as well as Toronto losing out. Win in shootout or lose, and we’re done."

Preview

If you take a quick look around the league you’ll notice that the Lightning are theoretically still in the playoff race.

GM Steve Yzerman shopped players at the deadline. Tampa Bay were sellers, yet fans still clung to the chances of a playoff berth — for good reason. There were times this season when the team showed promise. After getting rid of key veterans, young players stepped up, making their own cases for being considered for permanent spots on the roster.

Yet in the end, inconsistency plagued the Bolts. Injuries were no help, but regardless of the players who dressed nightly, the Lightning at times played like crap. Still, after realizing that Ryan Callahan and Steven Stamkos would be out for the season, the Bolts were able to make a decent run. It seemed like the desire was there, but not the skill.

Once you get in, anything could happen, but if you were a member of the Lightning coaching staff and front office, you’d have to be thinking about longevity. You have a franchise player who has a a history of injuries. Why rush him back from injury for two games only to miss the playoffs? A full summer of recovery and training may bode well for a Lightning team that has all the tools to make a deep playoff run in the upcoming season.

And above all else, lots became clear for the team this past season. Victor Hedman solidified his place in the league as a Norris-worthy defenseman. In his sophomore season, Jonathan Drouin had a year with 20+ goals and established himself as a an offensive force. The fanbase said a sorrowful goodbye to goaltender Ben Bishop and acknowledged that the future is now in Andrei Vasilevskiy’s hands.

Alex Killorn’s contract became evermore questionable, and Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr became this year’s defensive scapegoats. Brayden Point was incredibly enjoyable to watch and has lots of upside. The front office was able to examine a mulitude of young players who were called from Syracuse. And of course, Nikita Kucherov shone, leading the team on offense and powerplays.

Above all, its almost like this year was one whole training session. The Bolts lost Stamkos and Callahan for the season and Brian Boyle, Valtteri Filppula, Nikita Nesterov and Ben Bishop permanetly to trades. That is an incredible core of players not playing late in the season for a potential playoff push for the Bolts. The fact that Tampa Bay in the end was able to make it interesting is incredible in itself.

With a healthy roster, stability at the goaltending position, great prospects, and likely no burden of a preseason projection to win the Cup, next year could be something special for Tampa Bay.

Oh, and as for the matchup against Toronto? Expect speed. The Leafs are young, fast, and incredibly talented on the offensive end. Head coach Mike Babcock is creating something great in the six. Tampa Bay will be in total desperation mode, which may be entertaining, or sad. Who knows? But it’ll be an enjoyable matchup nonetheless.

Fulemin of Pension Plan Puppets has this to say about the Leafs’ lineup:

Pending word on the status of Brian Boyle, it looks like the Leafs are going to run the same skating lineup as last game—one that has been so good at times and looked so worn out against Washington. Only other thing to note about this lineup is that Roman Polak at times plays up the right side higher than third pair, as Mike Babcock has been willing to modify his pairings in-game.

Update:

Lines will be updated after morning skate.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards

Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov

Cory Conacher - Yanni Gourde - Alex Killorn

Jonathan Drouin - Greg McKegg - Joel Vermin

Michael Bournival - Vladislav Namestnikov - Adam Erne

Defense

Victor Hedman - Jake Dotchin

Anton Stralman - Luke Witkowski

Braydon Coburn - Andrej Sustr

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Peter Budaj

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forwards

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

Leo Komarov - Nazem Kadri - Connor Brown

Matt Martin - Brian Boyle (possibly out) - Kasperi Kapanen

Defense

Morgan Rielly - Connor Carrick

Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev

Matt Hunwick - Roman Polak

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney