Holiday blues; Tampa Bay Lightning at Pittsburgh Penguins preview

The Lightning are 3-3-1 this month, losing games to weaker opponents. The bipolar back-to-back games this week require a little more consistent effort... even if illness fades in.

Where: CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
When: | Tickets: Check availability
Media: NBC Sports Net (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Pensburgh, Pensblog, Confessions of a Hockey Fanatic

The Lightning has gone from high flying and fun to struggling against teams with mixed records (Buffalo, Columbus and Carolina having "mixed records" is being generous). The Bolts are 3-3-1 in December. That seven game span has seen Tampa Bay drub the Rangers and Sabres but play mixed games at home and on the road. Going 2-2-0 in the recently-completed homestand at Amalie Arena was disappointing. Though you can't win every game, you are supposed to compete - especially against teams fighting for draft lottery positions. Struggling against Carolina, losing to Buffalo in Buffalo (in the shootout) and losing to Columbus? Good teams win games perceived as against easy opponents.

The pair of back-to back games in store for the week ahead are split between Metro Division leaders and middling teams: the Penguins tonight and then the Flyers tomorrow start it off, the New Jersey Devils and the Islanders end it. With the bipolar composition of the remaining road trip, it's easy to be fearful that the Bolts get lost in their holiday blues...

It's also easy to be fearful of illness. The NHL's mumps epidemic (is it really that broad or just notable?) has knocked league superstar Sidney Crosby out of action tonight for the Penguins. This isn't the first time the Bolts have crossed a team with mumps cases either; Tampa Bay faced the Minnesota Wild in Minnesota back in October when the disease was thought of as just a weird flu strain. It was thought to have been contracted in the visiting locker room at Honda Center in Anaheim and knocked out Keith Ballard and Christian Folin from the Wild lineup as well as several members of the St. Louis Blues at the time. Another opponent, the New York Rangers, lost a member of their roster in Tanner Glass to the virus in late November... You know, when the Bolts played against them three times in two weeks.

It's spread further since then. No Lightning players have been thought to contract it, though Radko Gudas has been waylaid with a stomach ailment, keeping him out of action in Washington on Saturday night. It's good to report that Gudas was at the morning skate in Pittsburgh today as a participant.

Ondrej Palat, however, was not seen at practice. Palat has missed the last two games with a lower body injury, which hasn't exactly tested the Lightning's depth - Alex Killorn has assumed Palat's slot on the second line, Jonathan Drouin moving to the third and J.T. Brown playing instead of being scratched. There hasn't been much chemistry revealed in the moves, though.

There was a change in the morning skate line combinations though, but a real minor one: J.T. Brown moved up from the fourth line to the third, playing with Drouin and Cedric Paquette. Brett Connolly slipped to the fourth with Brendan Morrow and Brian Boyle. How much of a change this will produce offensively just seems negligible at this point, but you can't know for sure until the game is played. Fans (myself included) have wanted to see Jon Drouin given time on the second line in place of Alex Killorn (and I'd think fantasy hockey owners want to see Drouin on the top line in place of Valtteri Filppula, but they're biased to points alone), especially while the chips were down late in Washington on Saturday. That is, perhaps, impatience on our part with the intentions of coaching and management's plans, but circumstances led to Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat's rise last season. The current rough spot probably isn't looked at as circumstance enough to speed up Drouin's development timeline.

It'll likely be Marc-Andre Fleury versus Ben Bishop tonight. Fleury's record of 16-4-2 is comparable to Bishop's record of 16-6-2... What aren't comparable are Fleury's five shutouts as to Bish's single shutout, or Fleury's basic stats of a 2.10 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. Bsih has certainly been no slouch with his .914 save percentage and 2.34 GAA, but he hasn't been the same goalie as last season. He's working on it, though, as is the team playing in front of him.

Tonight should be a contest between two Eastern Conference titans at current but the game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Net so it's an affair of the bad guys and the good guys, with the afflicted champion mentioned far more than he need be and the mumps sideshow potentially stealing the spotlight from the game entire because of it. That's unfair to both teams and unfair to those watching at home, but that's NBC Sports Net in action.

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