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Happy New Year! The non-Winter Classic; Tampa Bay Lightning at Vancouver Canucks preview

Where:  Rogers Arena, Vancouver, British Columbia
When: 10 PM EST | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports, TSN (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio)
Opponent Coverage: Nucks Misconduct, Canucks Hockey Blog, Canucks Army

Happy New Year to one and all, this game amounts to the only other NHL game today after the Bridgestone Winter Classic in Ann Arbor.

The Western Conference is a monster, you’ve likely heard this, or at least the fact the conference is head and shoulders above the East this season, and that’s no exaggeration.  The Pacific Division is a good example of it, especially when compared to the stronger of the two Eastern conference divisions.

The Vancouver Canucks, tonight’s opponent which opens up this four game Canadian road swing, is in fourth place in the division with 53 points to their name (23-11-7 in 41 games played). 53 points would put the Canucks in 2nd in the Atlantic Division, ahead of Tampa Bay and a single point behind the Boston Bruins for the division lead (it’s worth noting, though, Boston has a game in-hand on the Canucks, Tampa Bay has two). Those 53 points would be third in the entire Eastern conference behind Boston and Pittsburgh alone.

In the East, they’d be playing for playoff seeding.  In the West, they’re a wild card team at this point, and that could change suddenly at any given point – you’re always at the whim of streaks and the hockey Gods.

And Vancouver is doing this all with the guy who couldn’t win “the right way” in New York (according to media and certain fans and bloggers). It’s our old pal, the abrasive but effective John Tortorella at the helm. His Canucks team is 11 points ahead of his immediate former team, the New York Rangers (this in the same number of game splayed).

“Old pal” is about as far as I can go with pleasantries with Torts, because he’ll give a “how you doing? Nice to see you” and be done with the niceties. This is business, and in 60 minutes of hockey or so, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Canucks will settle a dispute over two points in the NHL standings, all minus niceties and minus cordiality.

Let me make an unrelated game note before I get into the game itself: Tampa Bay made a transaction last night that puts a goaltender back onto the depth chart: Riku Helenius has accepted reassignment to the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. Riku had been pushed out in Syracuse, replaced by rookie Kristers Gudlevskis, and was told to stay home because of complications caused by trying to practice three goalies… That, and Riku didn’t want to be sent down to Estero. His reassignment is a reversal-of-fortune and should prove beneficial for him (you can’t raise your own value by not playing).

Dmitry Korobov was also returned to the Syracuse Crunch after Sunday’s loss to the Rangers, meaning Sami Salo or Eric Brewer (or both) will make returns to the lineup. But Tampacuse roster moves don’t stop there as Pierre-Cedric Labrie was successfully waived and also sent down to the Crunch. This paves the way for forward Ryan Malone to make his return to the lineup.

Yeah, that’s right, Bugsy’s gotten clearance to return to game action. How this affects the lineup remains to be seen but it does add the dynamic of grit. In 23 games before his injury, Malone had 3 goals and 6 assists. He had fallen in the lineup to 3rd and 4th line status, but his size and physical attributes might be a rather nice counter-balance to the diminutive duo of Martin St. Louis and Tyler Johnson. There’s no saying that line combo would be rolled out there, as the line with Ondrej Palat on left wing has proven productive. There’s also not telling if Malone could keep up.

While the Canucks have plenty of offensive tools, their power play unit leaves something to be desired – they’re currently 24th in the NHL with an 14.7% efficiency.  The Lightning’s own power play unit isn’t much better – ranked 21st in the NHL, the Bolts are converting 16.3% of their power play opportunities… And it can almost be guaranteed that tonight will not be a night where that percentage goes up.  Vancouver’s penalty kill is tops in the NHL with an 89.7% kill-rate.  Conversely, Tampa’s is narrowly in the top half of the league: an 82% effectiveness.  So don’t look for good things in special teams tonight.

Other Game Coverage:

What was the biggest Tampa Bay Lightning story of 2013?

The end of the 2012-13 NHL lockout 0
The rise of “Tampacuse” 9
The firing of Guy Boucher / hiring of Jon Cooper 10
Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop trade 11
Drafting Jonathan Drouin 1
The Vincent Lecavalier buyout 26
Martin St. Louis ecomes team captain 5
Steven Stamkos’ broken tibia 27
Other 2

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