PITTSBURGH — The standings might not show it, but the Tampa Bay Lightning-Pittsburgh Penguins game on Sunday night matched two of the NHL’s hottest teams.
While the Lightning are currently out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference with 54 points, 13 behind the fifth-place Penguins and eight points out of the conference’s final playoff spot , they appear to be making a determined playoff push with a 7-1-2 record in their last 10 games.
The Lightning won at Buffalo 2-1 on Saturday night, and they recently ran off a five-game winning streak in which they defeated Boston, Dallas and Washington.
Despite going 1-2-1 on a road trip that wound up Tuesday, the Penguins are 7-2-1 in their last 10 after riding Evgeni Malkin’s five-point game to an 8-5 win over Winnipeg on Saturday at Consol Energy Center. They have won their last five at Consol, where they are playing 10 of 14 games during a stretch that began Saturday and ends March 11.
The Lightning know they must keep playing like this if they are to return to the playoffs, where they ousted Pittsburgh in seven games last season. The Penguins, even without injured captain Sidney Crosby, know they can put a relatively firm grip on a sixth consecutive postseason appearance if they can maintain their home-ice edge over the next month.
Less than a year since the Lightning rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to beat his Penguins in the final three games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma understands how dangerous the Steven Stamkos-led Lightning can be.
“Just seeing them back in this building, for our team, regardless of how many points they do have, this is the team that beat us out of the playoffs. And that’s the reminder I was stricken with this morning when I saw their logo on their bags,” Bylsma said. “I know we’ll have some of that tonight. They have dangerous aspects of their team.”
The most dangerous is Stamkos, who leads the League with 37 goals – seven more than the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel of Toronto. Stamkos, currently on a six-game scoring streak in which he has five goals, has 3 goals and 10 assists in 14 career regular-season games against Pittsburgh.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen said the Penguins must be much more defensively sound than they were against Winnipeg, which opened a 2-0 lead against them. The Jets scored on five of their 25 shots against goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who was propped up by an offense that matched the Penguins’ season high with eight goals.
“It’s always better to learn a lesson when you get a win like that,” Niskanen said. “That’s not the type of game we want. We don’t want it to be a 50-50 game where we’re exchanging chances. I think we can do a better job of spending more time in their zone and controlling the play there, and that will cut down on some of our chances against.”
Nine players took part in an optional morning skate Sunday as the Penguins finish up what , at least for them, is an uncommon set of back-of-back games in which they play in the afternoon one day and the evening the next. Because Tampa Bay played Saturday night, the game could not be scheduled in the afternoon.
Bylsma did not reveal his goalie, although he recently said Brent Johnson would get more playing time down the stretch. Johnson took part in the morning skate and Fleury did not. Fleury has played on all but one of the Penguins’ last 27 games, starting 24 times.
Johnson is 7-2-3 with a 2.52 goals-against average against Tampa Bay.
Defenseman Simon Despres, who has missed 14 games with a knee injury, did practice. He appeared to aggravate the injury while practicing Thursday.
Pittsburgh is 4-5-1 in the second half of back-to-back games.
The Penguins’ likely lineup:
Chris Kunitz – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Matt Cooke – Jordan Staal – Pascal Dupuis
Steve Sullivan – Cal O’Reilly – Dustin Jeffrey
Craig Adams – Joe Vitale – Richard Park
Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang
Paul Martin – Zbynek Michalek
Matt Niskanen – Deryk Engelland