Contender confrontation, part 2; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Florida Panthers preview

The story didn't cease with the final horn last night... It may not truly do so until the post-season.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida | When: 7 PM EDT
Radio: 970 AM WFLA - Online Stream | Television: Fox Sports Sun | Twitter: Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Litter Box Cats, The Sunshine Skate

You ever see a film that concludes but leaves you wondering "what happened next?" We're not talking sequel here (though it's worth pointing out that there are few films that do a immediate continuation of storyline - think Back to the Future II and how it picks up immediately from the final scene of the first movie) but more like how the story pans out from angles that haven't finished.

Lemme link over to the ending of 1993's The Fugitive. If you've seen the film, you know there's drama and incidents of all sorts that play out between Dr. Richard Kimble and Marshall Samuel Gerard. While what plays out on screen here gives you a good send off for the film, there's more of a process that needs to play out to really conclude the storyline (and the relationship between Kimble and Gerard). How does it truly end?

In some ways, that's tonight at Amalie Arena. The Tampa Bay Lightning isn't playing the New York Islanders again (side note: The Isles are playing tonight against Carolina... and then will play them again as their next immediate opponent on March 29) but it's the flip-side of a back-to-back series with another weighty game, this one with a lot more direct influence and ties.

And the influence of the last 24 hours will have a hand in a game that may directly influence who wins the Atlantic Division in 2016...Maybe.

I talked about schedule stuff ahead for the Lightning and the Islanders in yesterday's game-day preview. The Florida Panthers remaining schedule is pretty evenly split home-away, but the potency of the opponents is... well, not so potent. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens will be played twice, the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes will also be played. That's 7 forthcoming matchups with non-playoff clubs. Call it a tune-up schedule with the post-season in mind; it paves the way (if the Panthers play things at a high compete level) for the team to go rip-roaring into the playoffs. It also provides them time to tweak their system/game play for post-season play, or rest major players who are aching...

If they're lock-eyed on winning the Atlantic, expect the high-compete level. And that starts tonight when they have to face the club that's currently sitting in the Atlantic Division lead.

But what happened next??

Getting back to the subject of the Lightning specifically, you've got a club that put up a barrage of shots on the Islanders net last night: 42. That's a pretty nice number (and yes, it's also the answer to Life, the Universe, and Stuff). A flurry of shots and goals doesn't erase the fact a major player from the lineup was taken down and taken out of the game early. Anton Stralman was slew foot (with no call) directly in front of the Lightning net and left the game. He's out indefinitely. The Lightning after morning, game day activities, has recalled Slater Koekkoek from the Syracuse Crunch. In morning remarks, defenseman Jason Garrison addressed the challenge that the blue line and the club faces without the pillar that is Stralman:

There were other bumps and bruises and things from last night to go along with 7 goals scored... Those physical aspects likely will have an influence in tonight's match. Case in point - Nikita Kucherov is questionable after blocking a shot yesterday. The fact Ben Bishop faced 31 shots, stopping 27 isn't as endurance-challenging as what Thomas Greiss faced for the Islanders, but Bishop won't be starting for the Lightning tonight. Andrei Vasilevskiy cometh.

Vasy and the rest of his team's challenge tonight is in stopping a consistent and potent top-six of the Panthers. There's a rise one can take out of knowing Jaromir Jagr leads the club in scoring at the moment (24 goals, 32 assists), but the offensive charge does not stop with Jagr, his linemates and the guys below him are putting up just as well. Jussi Jokinen has 56 points (tied with Jagr) with 16 goals and 40 assists, Vincent Trocheck has 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists)... The next three players are all in the upper 40's points-wise and the next group all at 29 points. Look for yourself, it's impressively consistent. It's what adds to the challenge of tonight - you can't undermine what Florida can bring to a game, you can't let yourself get lost in blind-man bitter rival aspects that some Lightning fans can get lost in ("Panthers suck, Panthers always suck, we suck if we lose to the Panthers because they're not as good as us and that's the way it's always been and always will be!"). This is a competent club taking on a competent club that just happens to be playing the flip-side of back-to-back games.

What happens next? We'll find out at 7 tonight... and the story likely won't truly be over until sometime in the 2016 NHL playoffs. Perhaps things will peter out long before that takes place (with either club nose-diving out of playoff contention before the season ends) or perhaps the Eastern Conference finals will pave the way for a true sequel on a competitive rivalry. We'll see.

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