The volatile chase; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Washington Capitals preview

WHERE: Tampa Bay Times Forum, Tampa, Florida
WHEN: 7 PM EST | | TICKETS: Check Availability
MEDIA: Sun Sports (cable), 970 WFLA (radio)
OPPONENT COVERAGE: Japers' Rink, Rock the Red, Kings of Leonsis

It's volatile right now. Don't look at the Lightning specifically when you read that, look at the Eastern Conference. Look at the Southeast Division. All of two points separate the Southeast leading Florida Panthers and second place Washington Capitals. All of two points. And, thus, all of two points separates the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and being out of the post-season picture entirely.

Southeast Standings

Florida 57 27 19 11 65
Washington 57 29 23 5 63
Winnipeg 60 28 26 6 62
Tampa Bay 57 25 26 6 56
Carolina 58 22 25 11 55

(updated 2.18.2012 at 10:06 AM EST)

Eastern Standings

New York Rangers 56 37-14-5 79
Boston Bruins 56 35-19-2 72
Florida Panthers 57 27-19-11 65
Philadelphia Flyers 57 32-18-7 71
New Jersey Devils 57 33-20-4 70
Pittsburgh Penguins 57 32-20-5 69
Ottawa Senators 60 30-22-8 68
Toronto Maple Leafs 58 29-23-6 64
Washington Capitals 57 29-23-5 63
Winnipeg Jets 60 28-26-6 62
Montreal Canadiens 59 24-25-10 58
Tampa Bay Lightning 57 25-26-6 56
New York Islanders 57 24-25-8 56
Carolina Hurricanes 58 22-25-11 55
Buffalo Sabres 58 24-27-7 55

You've got to think the Capitals are riding a high right now, after beating the Panthers in Sunrise last night (2-1 the final there). It was a must-win game for both teams - for Florida to pad their division lead and push Washington away from its heels, and for the Caps to stay in contention. The Caps did what they had to do with the victory, but now they face the crux of the second-half of back-to-back games, traveling to Times Palace tonight to square off with the Lightning.

Of course, things are volatile enough at 401 Channelside Drive. The Lightning managed a adversity-defying, character win the other night against the San Jose Sharks in the wake of Dominic Moore being traded and Pavel Kubina on the way out. The roster is likely wary of a further sell-off by management. Yet they overcame, and seem determined to keep on keepin' on. From the Times:

Said forward Nate Thompson: "Steve (Yzerman) is doing his job, and we have to do ours. It's within this room. We have to believe in each other. This is what we've got. Like Marty (St. Louis) said, we've got to stick together."

They're eight points out of a playoff spot, with 25 games to go. Despite an inconsistent season, the Bolts still have a chance. That's volatile.

Mathieu Garon gets the start in net tonight for the Lightning. He sat while Dwayne Roloson started against the Sharks. While having your goalie give up 5 goals is not very encouraging, the fact Roloson gave up only five on the barrage of shots the Sharks managed against Tampa Bay (50 in all)... well, it was just enough. Antti Niemi, for the Sharks, gave up six goals on 25 total shots by the Lightning. Can you say "ridiculously high shooting percentage?"

I have my doubts Tomas Vokoun or Michael Neuvirth are that accommodating tonight.

The Lightning enter the game with only six healthy defensemen while Pavel Kubina as his trade status remains pending. GM Steve Yzerman suggested a call-up from the Norfolk Admirals (hello, Evan Oberg!) was possible for tonight, but that remark came on Thursday and head coach Guy Boucher shot down the idea on Friday. The Bolts will go with six defenseman. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

The Bolts are down a D-man because of Marc-Andre Bergeron's lingering back issues. Bergeron has missed 14 of the Lightning's last 15 games due to the injury.

And in a total change of narrative...

As if Lightning fans needed any evidence of the fact, Steven Stamkos is the best young player in Tampa Bay pro sports at current. You can crow about the abilities of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, or the whiz-pow awesomeness of Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, but it's Stamkos who is leading his respective league in statistical categories: Stamkos continues to lead the NHL in goals with 39, he is 3 points shy of Evgeni Malkin's NHL leading 69 (for the math challenged, that means Stamkos has 66 points).

That doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. While Stamkos is becoming an all around player for the Bolts (and is clearly the team's MVP this season), he still has a woeful 45.9% faceoff percentage, near the bottom of the barrel (to be fair, Malkin also has a horrible faceoff percentage: 46.9%).

He'll get there, though. He's just one of the reasons to keep watching the Bolts and not give up on the season. Vinny's looming 1000th game played, Marty's consistent potency, the blooming abilities of Victor Hedman are just a few others.

Other Previews

Tampa Bay Lightning official team preview

Full game coverage on SB Nation


Check Availability