Under-standing; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Winnipeg preview

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

The crucial Southeast week continues for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they host the former Atlanta Thrashers for the second time this season. Out of all the Southeast division foes, Winnipeg and Tampa Bay have played each other the least this season (two games, total, between the clubs). That would make for four very important games down the stretch, if either team was closer to contention than they are.

But with the Eastern Conference being what it is, maybe both teams are closer to contention than it appears?

Eastern Standings

New York Rangers 49 32-12-5 69
Boston Bruins 48 32-14-2 66
Florida Panthers 49 23-15-11 57
Philadelphia Flyers 49 29-14-6 64
Pittsburgh Penguins 51 29-18-4 62
Ottawa Senators 53 27-20-6 60
Toronto Maple Leafs 51 26-19-6 58
New Jersey Devils 49 27-19-3 57
Washington Capitals 50 26-20-4 56
Winnipeg Jets 51 23-22-6 52
Tampa Bay Lightning 49 22-23-4 48
Buffalo Sabres 51 21-24-6 48
New York Islanders 49 20-22-7 47
Montreal Canadiens 50 19-22-9 47
Carolina Hurricanes 52 18-25-9 45

The Southeast Division, which we thought would be so formidable leading in to the season, seems to have become a contest for the best also-ran status among the five teams in the division. While the Panthers and Capitals are fighting for the division lead, two points is all that separates the Cats as the #3 seed in the conference and Caps as 9th seed (and out-of-the-playoff contention status). Winnipeg is within striking distance of Washington, and is sitting most comfortable in mediocrity with the 10th seed in the conference: four points ahead of Tampa Bay, and four points behind Washington.

In comparison to the rest of the league, the division's point totals and consistency aren't fearsome or intimidating in the least. The Atlantic Division is a four-headed monster; the Northeast division has three teams vying for the playoffs.

But even if this game is played between also-rans, it's a must win for the Tampa Bay Lightning if for nothing more than respectability. The entire week of games against Southeast Division foes - first Washington, now Winnipeg, and then the season-series finale against Florida on Saturday - are vital if the team is even going to dream in the slightest of making the playoffs. Sports Club Stats suggests the Bolts have all of a 7.4% chance of making the playoffs right now.

The odds are miniscule, but there's still a chance.

Forward Adam Hall skated this morning with the team, as did defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron. Both wore no-contact jerseys and aren't going to play tonight. Hall is likely still a long ways off from returning to action as his bicep tendon issue heals. Bergeron? It's hard to say either way if Marc-Andre will be back soon or it will be a while still. His health has varied during his year with the Bolts...

LW Ryan Malone is still out, and not skating, with his upper-body injury. Expect Pierre-Cedric Labrie back in the lineup tonight (after the Lightning skated 7 D-men on Tuesday) as well as J.T. Wyman.

For Winnipeg, they have their own injury returns expected for this game. Dustin Byfuglien will be back on the blueline for the first time since before Christmas, he'd been out with a knee injury Also back in for the former-Thrashers is Alexander Burmistrov (concussion).

Mathieu Garon gets the start for the Bolts in net, and Ondrej Pavelec should be between the pipes for Winnipeg tonight.

And the question I'll leave you with is: Can the Lightning make it six in a row? We'll find out soon enough...

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