TAMPA - The Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers visit the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday night to complete their six-game season series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning hold the edge, three wins to two, but the Panthers, with the chance of post-season play after 10 seasons, have come out of the All-Star break with two wins and can equal a season-high three-game win streak with a victory against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay, nine points from a playoff berth, will look to close that gap after having a season-long five-game winning streak halted Thursday when the Winnipeg Jets beat them in overtime, 2-1.
Just prior to the start of that game, rookie Brett Connolly was informed that he would be scratched. Connolly, Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick in 2010, made the roster out of training camp and began the season with lots of fanfare. Initially, Connolly made that decision look like a good one as he collected four goals and two assists in his first 18 games, including back-to-back goals Nov. 1 against Carolina and Nov. 4 against Chicago while routinely logging 15 minutes or more of ice time.
Connolly missed 11 NHL games while playing with Team Canada in the World Juniors and scored five goals and six points en route to a bronze medal, but since his return on Jan. 7, he hasn’t had a point in 10 games and has seen his time-on-ice shrink to less than eight minutes per game.
“I found out (about being scratched) right after warm-ups,” Connolly said. “It’s the first time ever in my life anywhere that I’ve been scratched. It’s a learning experience.”
And a learning experience that Connolly has apparently taken to heart.
“I have to work even harder now and make it tough for them to take me out of the lineup,” he said. “I want to push the older guys and I’ve got to be better every day.”
Connolly cited his defensive lapses as the main reason he sat out, but Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who started 11 forwards and seven defensemen against the Jets, then took a different approach to sitting Connolly.
“One, he was expecting it,” Boucher said, “and, two, he understands it. What effect will this have on his confidence? Well, look at Stamkos who lived the same thing as a rookie and is looking pretty good. These are moments that they have as a 19-year-old that they have to go through and learn and take a breather sometimes, like last game.
“I told him not to necessarily change his game now, we just needed a bigger body in the line-up, like (Pierre-Cedric) Labrie and (Ryan) Shannon had played well the previous game and I didn’t want to take him out. Sometimes it’s not necessarily about the player himself, it’s the fact that there are other players out there that are doing well.”
Florida arrived in Tampa after defeating Winnipeg 2-1 in Sunrise, Fla., on Friday night and had an optional skate Saturday morning. As a result, more of the players kicked a soccer ball around below the stands than actually took the ice. Scott Clemmensen gets the call in net for Florida, and he will become the first Panther goalie to start on consecutive nights this season.
NOTE: Just prior to the All-Star break, while the Lightning were mired in a seven-game losing streak which threatened to ruin their season, Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos asked a long-time Lightning employee, Tom Gilbert, to give then a pep-talk after the morning skate. Gilbert’s words of encouragement had the desired effect, as Tampa Bay put a halt to their skid with a 5-3 win against the Boston Bruins, with Stamkos scoring a goal and St. Louis picking up an assist.
A ritual was born and Gilbert, who collects audio sound bites for the team’s website, was called on to address the entire club after the morning skate during the next two home games, which the Lightning won. Gilbert, who cited Rocky Balboa running down the beach and other inspirational images, also spoke before the Winnipeg game on Thursday, which Tampa lost in overtime.
But when the magic is gone, it’s gone, and Gilbert was nowhere to be seen after Saturday’s morning skate.
Tomas Fleischmann - Stephen Weiss - Kris Versteeg
Sean Bergenheim - Marcel Goc - Mikael Samuelsson
Tomas Kopecky - Shawn Matthias - Mike Santorelli
Krystofer Barch - John Madden - Matt Bradley
Jason Garrison - Mike Weaver
Brian Campbell - Erik Gudbranson
Keaton Ellerby - Tyson Strachan
Tom Pyatt - Vincent Lecavalier - Martin St. Louis
Steve Downie - Steven Stamkos - Teddy Purcell
Ryan Shannon - Dominic Moore - JT Wyman
Nate Thompson - Brett Connolly
Eric Brewer - Victor Hedman
Pavel Kubina - Matt Gilroy
Bruno Gervais - Brendan Mikkelson