The Tampa Bay Lightning return home after a clumsy four-game road trip, in desperate need of their friendly home confines of Amalie Arena as the NHL regular season steams towards its conclusion. There are ‘ten’ games remaining in the Lightning’s season, and they find themselves trailing the Atlantic division leading Florida Panthers by only two points with a game in hand with a head to head show down coming later this week that may decided the division. However, there are only ‘eight’ teams in the Eastern conference that will make the playoffs, and Tampa finds itself only five points ahead of the ninth seeded Philadelphia Flyers who also have a game in hand against the Lightning. Tampa’s power play continues to be a mess, ranking near dead last in the league. Fans hoping the team could fix their man advantage problems as the season wore on, now have come to understand that their team’s inability to score with the extra attacker could be the team’s Achilles heel preventing the Lightning from making another deep run in post-season. The good news is Tampa’s penalty kill unit has been as great as their power-play has been awful; which is a tribute to goalie Ben Bishop and the defensive pairings to successfully thwart some of the best power play units in the league. The team will get good look as to how they stack up against potential Eastern Conference playoff opponents this week as all three teams could appear in the post season and are as desperate as the Lightning to ensure they make the post season. In the end there can only be ‘one’ Atlantic division champion, and Tampa’s ability to win games down the stretch, particularly against the Panthers this week, will determine what number they end up in the playoff seeding, or if they even make it all.
This week, the Lightning will play three games, all at home; as they start their final six game home stand of the regular season. Here is a breakdown of this week’s opponents:
MARCH 22 vs DETROIT The Detroit Red Wings are fighting for their playoff lives as they cling to the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot coming into Tampa. They are trailed by the red-hot Philadelphia Flyers by a single point, who also hold the head to head tie breakers against the Red Wings should they tie in point totals at the end of the season. Every game is critical for a team on the bubble, and Detroit will look to win a head to head tie breaker of their own against the Lightning, as they currently hold a 2-1 regular season series lead heading into their final matchup tonight. The Red Wings are still struggling to prevent teams from scoring goals on them consistently, which is why they have seen their playoff seeding continue to drop as the season winds down. Detroit is looking to squeeze their way into the post season and is hoping one of their two goaltenders Petr Mrazek or Jimmy Howard can get hot at the right time, allowing the Red Wings to fulfill many of the hockey pundits belief they could be a dark horse Stanley Cup team. The Lightning’s approach to beating Detroit is simple; they must score early goals and not allow the Red Wings shaky net minders to gain the confidence they’ve found against Tampa in their previous meetings this season. The Lightning will look to corral dangerous forward Henrik Zetterberg and center Dylan Larkin who continue to provide most of the Red Wings offensive production. The loser of this game may find themselves out of the playoffs entirely when the season ends and is about as important of a regular season game that you can find.
MARCH 25 vs NY ISLANDERS The New York Islanders are free falling at the worst possible time of the season having lost four straight, and six of their last seven games. Two weeks ago the Islanders were looking to challenge for the third seed in the East, and now they are desperately trying to get any points they can to ensure they do not miss the playoffs entirely. The recently slide has come from New York’s sudden unreliability in net from Thomas Griess, who previously had provided a good 1a & 1b option in goal sharing time with Jaroslav Halak prior to Halak’s injury. Once Halak injured his groin on March 8th sidelining him for at least six weeks, Griess has struggled being the de-facto starter, allowing a startling 3.33 goals against in his last six starts which were also Islander losses. The Islanders still maintain one of the few penalty kill units better than the Lightning, along with a slightly above average power play; so it is not all doom and gloom for the club. The Lightning will look to test the shaky goaltending as the Islanders could potentially be clinging to the final playoff spot when this game is played, and could potentially be extremely tight playing in a huge road game. New York scoring dynamo winger Kyle Okposo and center John Tavares will look to solve the best goalie in the league in Ben Bishop to relieve some pressure on Thomas Griess. The Lightning should be able to utilize superior goalie advantage to continue the Islanders free fall down the standings.
MARCH 26 vs FLORIDA The Florida Panthers lead the Atlantic division and essentially control their own destiny as to whether they can win their first division title in years or be a middle of the road Eastern conference playoff seed. The Panthers next two games will be against the two teams chasing the Panthers: the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins. If the Panthers can beat both Boston and Tampa they could have a three to four point lead for the division with only eight games to play, along with owning the series head to head tie-breaker versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Florida has defied the odds all season as many media members and league officials had them pegged for a borderline lottery team with no real scoring threats heading into the 2016 season. The Panthers continue to prove these predictions wrong ranking in both the top 10 in goals for and goals against; making them one of the most balanced teams in the Eastern conference. Stellar goaltending from veteran all-star Roberto Luongo and a offensive explosion from old time legend Jaromir Jagr; a man who most people would assume is more likely to be spending his days lounging around in retirement than leading a top Eastern playoff team in goals this year. The Panthers do have young talent in Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Huberdeau all who have provided timely contributions helping this veteran led squad be a serious contender in the East. The Lightning must beat the Panthers if they have any real thoughts of winning the Atlantic division, as a loss would put them nearly three games back due to tie breakers, with only seven to play. To beat Florida Tampa must find a way to solve Luongo and do it early, as he has had several career games against the Lightning over his long career, and if he gets out of the first period without allowing a goal it could be a long night for Tampa. Florida’s penalty kill is one of their few weak spots, so if the Bolts maligned power play were to choose a time to get going; doing so against the Panthers in what might be the biggest game of the regular season for Tampa would be a great place to start.
Useless Prediction for the Week: The Bolts will beat the Red Wings in a tough contest that will see Tampa pull away late, and ensuring a regular series spilt with Detroit. They will beat the Islanders two days later as they continue to push for their Atlantic Division title, and effectively close in on guaranteeing at least a playoff spot. This will set up a huge matchup against the Panthers on Saturday which unfortunately Tampa will lose. Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo appears to always have Tampa’s number and Florida has already beaten the Bolts three out of four times this year; which indicates they may just be a poor matchup for the Lightning. My useless prediction this week has the Bolts going (2-1) & getting 4 points.
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