LIGHTNING (14-8-3) at BRUINS (13-8-2)
TV -- SUN (HD), NESN (HD)
Last 10 -- Tampa Bay 6-3-1; Boston 5-4-1
Season series -- It's the second of four meetings this season. Steven Stamkos scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal -- his 20th of the season and one of three Tampa Bay put on the board in the second period -- in a 3-1 Lightning victory on Nov. 22 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Big story -- Since the NHL went to three divisions per conference for the 1998-99 season, the newly-created Southeast Division generally hasn't been one of the League's most competitive from top to bottom. Never have more than two playoff teams come out of it, and there have been five occasions -- including last season -- when only the division winner earned a postseason berth.
That could change this season, as both Tampa Bay and Atlanta have emerged to challenge perennial favorite Washington. The Thrashers are currently on a six-game winning streak and the Lightning are doing their best to keep up and not relinquish their grasp on second place.
Lightning -- Simon Gagne knows all about returning to the lineup and immediately making an impact -- he came back from injury during the playoffs with the Flyers last spring to score the Game 4 overtime goal that began their historic comeback from a 3-0 series deficit to the Bruins. What he did on Tuesday for the Lightning wasn't quite as dramatic, being it was only Nov. 30, but Gagne scored 1:15 into overtime in his first game back from a neck injury for a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs. Martin St. Louis scored a pair of third-period goals, including the tying score with 8.7 seconds remaining.
"We kind of kept (the return) secret this morning just in case," said Gagne, who missed 18 games. "I was nervous. I didn't sleep a lot last night -- even this afternoon I was looking for at least a good two hours for a nap, but I could not sleep. It's hard when you don't play for a month and you're coming back in Toronto. You know it's going to be a tough game.
"I'm glad this one's over and I'm glad we won the game."
Bruins -- While he might get the night off since this is the second of a back-to-back set for Boston, goalie Tim Thomas shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. The Vezina winner in 2009 is the leading candidate for the award at this point in the season, leading the League with a 1.46 goals-against average, .955 save percentage and five shutouts after his 41-save performance in a 3-0 win at Philadelphia on Wednesday.
"It was a fun game because everything went my way and the guys worked hard in front of me and the defensemen were blocking shots," Thomas said. "That was a hard work victory and it feels good to be rewarded like that."
Who's hot -- Ryan Malone has 3 goals and 3 assists in his last five games for the Lightning. … Milan Lucic is supporting Thomas in net with a team-leading 11 goals for the Bruins, including an empty-netter Wednesday.
Injury report -- Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier (hand) and defenseman Matt Smaby (ankle) are on injured reserve. … Boston forwards Marco Sturm (knee) and Marc Savard (post-concussion syndrome), neither of whom have played this season, are close to returning. They are currently on injured reserve along with forward Trent Whitfield (Achilles).
Stat pack -- Gagne became only the second player in franchise history to have his first goal for the Lightning come in overtime -- Craig Millar first did it against the Islanders on Nov. 3, 2000. … The Bruins have won all nine games this season in which they've scored the first goal. … Thomas is 9-0-0 on the road, the fastest start away from home by a goaltender since Chicago's Glenn Hall won his first nine games in 1965-66.
Puck drop -- Regardless of who starts Thursday, it's evident Thomas has taken the No. 1 job in Boston back from Tuukka Rask. There still isn't a clear top dog in Tampa Bay. Dan Ellis (6-4-3, 2.86 GAA, .894 save percentage) got the win against Toronto, but it's expected Mike Smith (8-4-0, 3.36 GAA, .879 save percentage) will get the nod in this one.
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