First half of the Sunshine Skate; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Florida Panthers preview

It's a tight-tight race in the Atlantic Division, with the Florida Panthers within striking distance of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida | When: 7 PM EST
Radio: 970 AM WFLA | Television: Sun Sports Fox Sports Sun | Twitter: Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Litter Box Cats

The Atlantic Division remains a tight race... Well, everything except the top spot of the division is a tight race with in. The Montreal Canadiens remain in firm control with 29 points in 17 games played (13-2-2). After that, it's all of 7 points that separates 2nd place Ottawa with 8th place Toronto. More relevant for the next two games in - it's only 3 points that stand between the currently 3rd place Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers, who the Bolts will be playing in home-and-home, not-quite back-to-back games tonight at Amalie Arena and Monday at BB&T Arena in Sunrise.

Ah, yes, the Florida Panthers... the other set of skaters from the Sunshine State. Florida has had a promising start to the season but it's been waylaid by the loss of Alexander Barkov from the lineup since late October. He's on injured reserve and the Cats have started to sink in the standings by way of it. Or have they? They have 15 points in 16 games played (6-7-3) but are within striking distance of everyone above them. To their advantage is goal-differential too; they are one of three clubs in the division with a positive goal differential (+2). Florida is ranked 2nd in that department, far behind the 1st place Canadiens (+23) but better than just about everyone at the moment in the Atlantic. The club is capable and still in the process of finding itself in full.

Oh, and that Jaromir Jagr guy? He leads the team on offense. You might have suspected it or heard rumors, but it's true - 7 goals and 6 assists in 14 games played this season. Play-down voice aside, Jagr is in his twenty-fifth season of professional hockey! What he's done in the first 14 games of this season is all of 5 points shy of what he did in his final 20 last season (6 goals, 113 assists) which happened to be his first games with the Panthers. His first 57 games of 2014-15 (with the New Jersey Devils) produced 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists) - numbers it looks like he'll catch with ease as the season goes on (unless he suffers a major injury or the Panthers collapse). That's pretty damned solid production for a 43 year old, ain't it?

As for the home team, the line shakeup from Thursday stays in place for tonight's game, at least to start: Steven Stamkos will have Vladislav Namestnikov on his left wing in place of Jonathan Drouin, with Drouin playing on the third line with Cedric Paquette as his centerman. Drouin hasn't scored a point since the October 15th loss to the Dallas Stars. That loss was also Drouin's season high of time-on-ice during a game (17:54). For those who will scoff, remember the Lightning in general has been anemic on offense over that span (that includes games missed by Drouin due to injury). He may be back in the lineup but that doesn't guarantee that his injury has totally subsided either (but that's a truth for every player in the lineup at any given time).

Ben Bishop will start in net for the Lightning tonight, it's his second straight start - the first time that's happened since October 21/24; he's been sharing duties with other netminders (Kristers Gudlevskis and Andrei Vasilevskiy) the last few weeks after being over-used from the preseason through the first few weeks of the regular season. Being kept fresh has sunk his GAA to 2.15 and raised his save percentage to .924. He can't be expected to do it all though and his record (6-7-0) this season underlines the notion the guys in front of him have to get back on track with their offensive output.

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