The Canes open divisional play tonight against a team that couldn’t beat them in six tries last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Joni Pitkanen
will make his season debut for the Canes tonight in place of Jay Harrison
, with Tim Conboy also entering the lineup.
Carolina swept the season series with Tampa in 2008-09, as the Lightning eventually finished 14th in the Eastern Conference. However, with the additions of Mattias Ohlund, second overall pick Victor Hedman and Alex Tanguay and a healthy Mike Smith in goal, they should be a more formidable opponent in the new season. ESPN even has them as a playoff team
this season, finishing ahead of the Canes in the Southeast.
“It’s going to be another tough challenge,” said Canes goaltender Cam Ward
. “The Lightning is a team that if you look at their lineup has definitely improved from where they were last year.”
Tampa has only played one game this season, a 6-3 loss in Atlanta on Saturday night. While that opening result doesn’t suggest fortunes have turned around in that particular part of Florida, the Lightning still have the offensive weapons to give the Hurricanes problems if their penalty kill doesn’t improve upon it’s current 53.8 percent record. Tampa recently hired Adam Oates as an assistant coach, where he’s working closely with the power play in a Ron Francis-type capacity.
Conversely, the Canes may have an easier time generating offense than they did in their first two games if the Lightning can’t shore up their defensive zone. Six goals to the Thrashers is a little much, even if at least one of them was a bit fluky. Also, defenseman Kurtis Foster is out with a lower body injury.
In a somewhat unusual move that can likely be chalked up to early-season bonding on the road, they came to Raleigh immediately after that game and practiced at the RBC Center each of the last two days. That leaves them plenty familiar with the Canes’ current situation.
"They are not happy at all," Head Coach Rick Tocchet told the St. Pete Times. "Like (Lightning associate coach) Rick Wilson said, 'We may be coming into a hornet's nest.'"
In response to the Canes’ plan of being more tenacious on the puck in all facets of their game, Tocchet added, “When teams play aggressive, you have to push back. That's our motto tomorrow."
Could it be yet another rough game for Carolina, which easily leads the league with 71 total penalty minutes thus far?