Rise or fall; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Ottawa Senators preview

WHERE: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7:30 PM EST | | TICKETS: Check Availability
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 970 WFLA (radio)

There's optimism in Tampa Bay right now as the Bolts have been winning despite so many adversities; roster losses and additions, injuries, and the flu... We cannot forget the flu (who could?).

The Lightning remains in playoff contention...as do all too many bubble teams in the Eastern Conference. With their victory last night over the Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg's former-Thrasher franchise improved their point lead for the eighth seed in the East to four points over Tampa Bay.

While confidence is rising among the fans and in the locker room. The Bolts will likely see a boost to the team's defensive game with the return of Victor Hedman to the lineup tonight (counter point: Bruno Gervais did not practice this morning, and Marc-Andre Bergeron will have surgery on his ailing back tomorrow in New York). It would be Hedman's first game back in the lineup since his mystery upper-body injury suffered against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But with the positives of the recent stretch of games (7-3-0 in the past 10), comes the realization of the tough stretch ahead. The last 17 games of the season are a constant barrage of challenges, including the litmus test that takes place this week at home and on the road.

It starts tonight at Times Palace with the Bolts facing their expansion brethren, the Ottawa Senators. This game completes the 2011-12 season series between the two clubs. And it hasn't been pretty from where Tampa Bay is sitting. The Lightning has been outscored 12-3 in the series, including Ottawa's 4-0 Valentine's Day drubbing. That loss was thought to inspire the beginnings of the 2012 trade deadline selloff by general manager Steve Yzerman (defenseman Pavel Kubina was asked to waive his no-trade clause on the morning of February 16th and Dominic Moore was dealt that evening before a game against the San Jose Sharks).

A scant four points may separate the Lightning and a playoff seed, but a mountain is in the way from that goal. Can Tampa Bay keep climbing?

The tough schedule doesn't stop with Ottawa tonight; Tampa Bay heads to Washington in a confrontation with the Capitals on Thursday night. The Caps sit a lone point ahead of the Lightning in the standings. That margin may just widen tonight as the Caps face the Hurricanes.

That aspect - how other teams play - is out of the control of the Lightning. I don't expect much scoreboard watching going on at Times Palace tonight.

...At least, not tonight. If Tampa Bay continues to play hot and continues to vie for the playoffs that'll change.

Ben Bishop, the sought-after goaltending prospect who had been with the St. Louis Blues organization, makes his Ottawa Senators debut tonight. Bishop, acquired February 26th for a 2nd round draft choice in 2013, has made three starts for the Binghamton Senators of the AHL , going 2-1-0 and posting a 2.35 GAA and .944 save percentage in 173 minutes. Of course, that's the AHL...

Speaking of the trade deadline, Brian Lee faces his former club for the first time - and Matt Gilroy is doing the same. The defensemen were swapped last Monday as part of the active afternoon at 401 Channelside Drive. Lee has two assists and has an even plus / minus since joining the team, while Gilroy has one assist and is minus-1 so far with the Senators.

Mathieu Garon starts in net for the Lightning.

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