By Brooks Roland
One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, one big step back. That kind of pattern has been typical of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2015-16 up to this point. Just when they win a game or two, they’ll string together a couple losses in a row. Or we see something like what the Lightning did last week, when they won the first two games of their road trip against Eastern Conference bottom feeders Columbus and Toronto. They promptly followed that up by blowing a 3-0 lead against the top team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals, in a 5-3 loss. Returning home for a six-game homestand, Tampa Bay then won the first game of that homestand by beating Ottawa 5-2.
This week, the Christmas break will see the Lightning only playing two games. Even though we’ve said this many times this season, they have another chance to build up some momentum, string some wins together, and make their move up the standings. Whether or not they actually take advantage of the opportunity remains to be seen.
DECEMBER 22 VS. VANCOUVER
The Vancouver Canucks might reside in third place in the Pacific Division, but it’s a very tenuous hold on that position, as the Arizona Coyotes are only one point behind the Canucks. This is important because with the way the standings are shaking out right now, the Pacific Division is probably only going to send three teams to the playoffs while the Central could end up with both wild card spots for the third season in a row. Vancouver is 12-14-9, good for 33 points. As you can see, the Canucks also lead the league with 9 losses that have gone past regulation. The new 3-on-3 OT format has not been kind to Vancouver, as they’re 0-7 in games decided in overtime, as opposed to being 2-2 in shootouts. Tuesday’s game at Amalie Arena (the teams’ first meeting this season) will be the final game of the Canucks’ six-game road trip, one in which they’ve struggled to a 1-3-1 record. That includes two games in which they were shut out. Vancouver has gone to a shootout in their last two games, a 4-3 victory in Detroit on Friday and a 5-4 loss to the Panthers in Sunrise on Sunday, a game where starting goalie Ryan Miller left the game with an injury during the shootout. His status will be one to watch heading into Tuesday night. The 35-year-old Miller and his backup, Jacob Markstrom, have both struggled at times this season, but the Canucks’ play in front of them has been lackluster, as they’ve given up an average of 2.91 goals-per-game, putting them in the bottom 10 of the league. Vancouver has also struggled with injuries this season, as Brandon Sutter has been out since early November with sports hernia surgery, Dan Hamhuis hasn’t played since taking a puck to the face on December 9th, and Luca Sbisa has been out since December 3rd with a hand injury. Making matters worse, Henrik Sedin, who leads the team with 22 assists and is second with 31 points, has missed the last two games because of an unspecified lower body injury. Henrik and his twin brother Daniel (who leads the Canucks in goals and points) continue to be productive players for Vancouver despite being 35-years-old, so if Henrik is forced to miss more time, the Canucks will need more secondary scoring like they got in Sunday’s loss.
DECEMBER 26TH VS. COLUMBUS
The Columbus Blue Jackets are currently in last place in the NHL thanks to an 0-8-0 start that the team has been trying to recover from ever since. When the Lightning and Jackets met for the first time this season in Columbus on December 14th, it was a shorthanded goal in the third period by Brian Boyle that gave the Bolts a 2-1 victory over the Jackets. Because of a groin injury to starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Joonas Korpisalo got his first-ever NHL start against the Lightning and make 27 saves in the loss, the fourth in a row for the Jackets. That streak would extend to five with a 5-1 loss in Dallas in which Korpisalo was pulled. Since then, Columbus has won their last two games, 7-5 in Arizona (a game where star center Ryan Johansen was a healthy scratch) and 3-2 in a shootout at home against Philadelphia on Saturday. Curtis McElhinney picked up the win in net against the Coyotes while Korpisalo returned to the crease for the victory over the Flyers, making 30 saves. Brandon Saad has picked up two goals and two assists in those two games, while Nick Foligno has tallied a goal and three assists in Columbus’s last four games. Scott Hartnell, who leads the team in goals (13) and points (26), has a goal and four assists in the Jackets’ last five games, while Johansen hasn’t picked up a point since notching two assists against Winnipeg on December 10th. While Columbus misses Bobrovsky, they were struggling to keep the puck out of the net while he was healthy, as they’ve allowed 107 goals, the second-most in the league, which averages out to 3.06 per game. The Jackets have been a much-improved group since hiring former Lightning head coach John Tortorella to replace the fired Todd Richards, but the rest of this season will be an uphill battle to improve their position in the standings, as that awful start put them in a huge bind. This will be the second of three meetings this season between the Lightning and the Blue Jackets, as well as the only time they will square off at Amalie Arena. Columbus will begin a three-game road trip on Monday night in Pittsburgh before getting a few days off for the holidays. Their visit to Tampa will be the first of two games on back-to-back nights, as they’ll wrap up their trip in Sunrise on Sunday against the Florida Panthers.
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