Contender confrontation, part 1; Tampa Bay Lightning versus New York Islanders preview

The Bolts start a back-to-back series with top-level teams. Tonight's New York Islanders are trying to right their ship after a recent skid.

Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida | When: 7:30 PM EDT
Radio: 970 AM WFLA | Television: Fox Sports Sun, NHL Network (US) | Twitter: Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Lighthouse Hockey, NYI Point Blank, Islanders Insight

A winless skid came to a halt for a team that is contending for a 2016 NHL Eastern Conference playoff spot and the club wants to continue things in a proper, positive track. The idea of extending things into a winning streak would be quite an achievement and just the right kind of track as the NHL season winds down.

Now multiply that factor by two and pit the clubs against each other and you have the recipe for an interesting match at Amalie Arena tonight between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders.

The Lightning ended a 9 game winning streak to start the month of March but have gone 5-4-1 in their past 10 games. It seemed a little bleak with a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs and was too easy to despair while the team ventured west to finish regular-season Western Conference games, losing to Dallas and then blanking the Coyotes to regain a victorious traction. Between that win and taking down the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, the Lightning seems to be back on the high competitive track that had been the majority of 2016.

The New York Islanders, on the other hand, are 4-4-2 in their past 10 games. They snapped a 4 game losing streak in a win against the Ottawa Senators Wednesday night. The Isles have been pushed from the 3rd seed in the Metro Division standings to wild card spot holders, two points in front of the Philadelphia Flyers (and Atlantic Division wild card contending Detroit Red Wings). They're also a lone point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins who took over the 3rd spot in the Metro.

While tonight is a playoff-caliber game in and of itself, more opportunity lies in the coming games for the Islanders: Their next 3 games are against the Carolina Hurricanes (who they play tomorrow, then on March 29), and Columbus Blue Jackets, also-rans of the Metro Division. Those are contests the Isles have to capitalize on, because their schedule to end the season is a daunting task, with in-division challenges from the Rangers, Penguins, Capitals, Flyers, and another foray against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 4. Their one token game, and that's debatable, of their last six games is against the Buffalo Sabres on April 9, the first game of back-to-back contests to end the season (the second game is against Philly).

Speaking of which, the Lightning start their second-to-last back-to-back series of the 2015-16 regular season in tonight's affair against the Isles. Tomorrow at Amalie Arena, the club hosts the at-the-moment Atlantic Division leading Florida Panthers in another playoff-caliber game. The remaining schedule for the Bolts looks (on paper) to start off as token games but recent results paints them as otherwise - the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are due to visit the Amalie next, with the home season ending on April 2 versus the New Jersey Devils. The tri-state area hosts the Lightning on April 4, 5 and 7 in games against the Isles, Rangers and Devils before the season concludes on April 9 in Montreal.

Now, more about tonight...

Line combos for the Lightning of recent stay the same, though there was notable progress with one forward who has been missing from the Tampa Bay lineup of recent: Ryan Callahan participated in the morning skate, though wearing a grey jersey. That also remains the status of Valtteri Filppula: participating but in a hands-off kind of fashion.

They haven't achieved this feat by playing together most of the season but the tandem of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov has 120 points on the season, combined. Both men are at 60 points for the season. That's 19 points ahead of the #3 scorer on the Bolts roster, defenseman Victor Hedman (41). While that production makes the Lightning look both top-heavy and anemic offensively, contributions from the likes of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn have been steady and growing in recent weeks. Palat and Johnson specifically are guys to keep an eye on for their offensive appeal. Both had been hampered by injuries through the season but as I said, that's turning around of recent. And just enough offensive aptitude is what the team needs to triumph in a tight game.

On the other side of the ice the stats of the New York Islanders look familiar. A certain player wearing #91 on his jersey has 57 points on the season and leads the team: John Tavares has 27 goals and 30 assists in 69 games played. The second top scorer on the Isles roster is Kyle Okposo with 56 (20 goals, 36 assists). Two guys with high-high contributions and then only one player on the club with 40+ points - Frans Nielsen (46) - looks very familiar, indeed. Look at the rosters yourself - Tampa Bay / NY Islanders -- and you see for yourself that both teams have the tools to do the work but aren't other-worldly top heavy in production from top scorers. It gives off the notion this could be quite a daunting task for either club to get the win (and it may be surprising if either team does it in regulation and not via overtime / the shootout).

That gets pushed another degree - the potential competitiveness of the game - by way of goaltending. Bishop will get the start for the Lightning. Bishop is 31-19-4, 2.02 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage and 5 shutouts to his name. His opponent will likely be Thomas Greiss, who has posted a 19-10-4 record in 35 games played, a 2.29 GAA, a .927 save percentage and a lone shutout this season. Greiss is playing more often now in places of Jaroslav Halak who got waylaid earlier this month and likely won't return to availability for the Isles until late April... if the club is still playing.

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