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Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers preview: A playoff tease

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Home ice advantage is at stake tonight

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers: GAME 55

Time: 7:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: BB&T Center

Broadcast/Streaming: BSFL, NHL.TV free game

Opponent SBNation Site: Litter Box Cats

Friday’s night’s loss against the Dallas Stars has ruined the Tampa Bay Lightning’s hopes to finish the regular season in first place in the Central Division. With two games left before the start of postseason, the Carolina Hurricanes are officially out of reach which means that the Lightning will face the Florida Panthers in the first round of playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Both teams will have a brilliant chance to learn their opponent better as they will meet twice in two final regular season games.

While their first round matchup is official and inevitable, Tampa Bay and Florida still need to decide which team will have home ice advantage in opening round of playoffs. Currently both teams teams tied with 75 points after 54 games, but the Lightning have an advantage as they’ve won more regulation games this season (29 against 24), meaning that a regulation win over the Panthers tonight will guarantee them home ice advantage.

The Panthers won the last game between the teams back in April, 5-3, when the Lightning failed to complete a comeback after allowing three goals in the first period. Since that game Florida has won seven out of nine games, including four straight victories prior to tonight’s game.

Entering tonight’s contest, the Panthers are hoping for return of several significant players, including newcomer Sam Bennett, who scored 13 points in nine games since joining the team, already exceeding his amount of points he scored with the Calgary Flames in 29 more games. According to Joel Quenneville, he, Patrik Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe are expected to play tonight against the Lightning, however they will wait until the morning skate to make a final decision.

While the Lightning’s biggest stars Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are practicing with the team, but not expected to return before Game 1, defenceman Jan Rutta played in his first game after missing more than a month due to injury. In his return he played 15 minutes on the third pair with Mikhail Sergachev, replacing Luke Schenn on that position. Meanwhile another Lightning’s defenceman Ryan Mcdonagh is questionable for the game after leaving yesterday’s game with seven minutes left.

Unlike the Lightning, who is playing the second game in two days tonight, the Panthers are well-rested after a five-day pause.

Tampa Bay Lightning Lines

(based on the previous game)

Forwards

Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Alex Barre-Boulet

Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - Tyler Johnson

Barclay Goodrow - Yanni Gourde - Blake Coleman

Patrick Maroon - Ross Colton - Mathieu Joseph

Defense

Victor Hedman - Erik Cernak

Ryan McDonagh (?) - David Savard

Mikhail Sergachev - Jan Rutta

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Curtis McElhinney

Florida Panthers Lines

(based on the previous game; Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Patrik Hornqvist to return to the lineup)

Forwards

Anthony Duclair - Aleksander Barkov - Grigory Denisenko

Owen Tippett - Alex Wennberg - Jonathan Huberdeau

Aleksi Heponiemi - Masom Marchement - Frank Vatrano

Nikita Gusev - Noel Acciari - Ryan Lomberg

Defense

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger