Back to the grind: Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning preview [UPDATED]

WHERE: St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
MEDIA: Versus (Cable), 620 WDAE (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Broad Street Hockey

So, where were we?

Ah yes...  Three straight losses at the hands of eastern conference opponents.  All of this after a lengthy winning trend in inter-conference and divisional play.

You've had a fortnight to forget about the crash-and-burn weekend that segued into the Olympic break. You've had two weeks to forget about just about everything Lightning related for that matters... Except the fact the Bolts were coming back to town sometime soon.

Folks?  It's here.  It's now.  We return you to your regularly scheduled hockey league.

Tampa Bay has 21 games left in it's regular season.  The Lightning are 26-24-11 and one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  It's an absolute mess at the lower seeds, as all of five points separates the 6th ranked conference team (Philadelphia) and the 11th ranked team (Atlanta).

And the Bolts did themselves no favors with the losses to Boston and both New York teams before the Olympic hiatus (yes, Buffalo is in New York too, I'm talking the named "New York" teams, thanks).

It's make or break time. If tonight's game tells us anything, it should be if the Lightning are officially playoff contenders or pretenders. The team has been outscored, outplayed, and out done by the likes of the Flyers all season. If the team does not approach situation with their A-game, there is no realistic reason why the Bolts should be buyers at the deadline for a playoff push.

A team rises to the occasion if they are true contenders.  The trio of losses before the hiatus was just the opposite of this:  Must win games treated as just-another-of-82.

There are no more opportunities for such lackluster play.  It's all-in time.

The Lightning are 5-4-1 in their last ten games, 17-7-6 at home, and trying to deal with the question of leadership and direction of the club poised by the major transaction last week by Brian Lawton's firing of assistant coach Wes Walz.  What's new assistant Jim Johnson's role?  Is Rick Tocchet ultimately in charge?  Or has the season become an exercise in futility, transitioning into off-season changes of ownership, front office staff and coaching?

As Jon Jordan so eloquently put it in describing this fiasco:

OK Hockey – dubbed a circus by so many – may be out as an ownership group but, clearly, the show must go on.

Normally at this point I would put up stats that reflect what each club is doing on special teams and on other facets. I'm skipping it today not out of negligence but out of wiping the slate clean. The momentum either club had in either direction before the break has been rendered moot. Two weeks off will do that to you.

I'll make an educated guess and say Mike Smith will be the goaltender to start tonight. Mike has been practicing with the club for the most part the last few days while Antero Niittymaki has been distracted by the Olympics. Rick Tocchet will be rewarding the guy who has been around, and resting the goalie who's been practicing and playing with his national team the past two weeks.

[Note by John Fontana, 03/02/10 3:40 PM EST ] Well, I was completely wrong here. The team just announced that Antero Niittymaki will get the start. Matt Walker is out with a lower body injury. Matt Smaby will take his place in the lineup.

Mark Parrish will play tonight. Erik Erlendsson at the Tampa Tribune reported that he practiced on a line with LW Alex Tanguay and Nate Thompson yesterday.

Brandon Bochenski is on recall waivers at this time. If he passes through, he'll likely be in the lineup tonight, but that is not a given. Neither is his passing-through at this time. We'll know by noon if he does indeed clear.

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