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Bolts begin key stretch tonight against Panthers

Tampa Bay embarks on a stretch of six-straight games against Atlantic Division opponents

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL /

The Tampa Bay Lightning will play their next six games against Atlantic Division opponents.

As far as working their way back into a playoff position, there might not be a more important stretch in the season than the one the Bolts are about to embark on.

The Lightning currently sit in sixth place in the Atlantic Division standings but are only four points back of second with three games in hand against the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs. Tonight's opponent, the Florida Panthers, winners of three in a row, are three points in front of the Lightning having played one more game.

Video: Jon Cooper on Mathieu Jospeh and Tyler Johnson.

Which makes tonight's contest at AMALIE Arena against the Panthers (7 p.m. puck drop), the last before the Lightning take three days off for the Christmas break, a crucial four-point swing game that could have lasting effects once the playoff picture begins to crystalize.

"It's huge. We're chasing," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "It's very important that we take care of these games. We've got to come out hungry tonight before three days of break. We've got to empty the tank tonight, that's the bottom line. Play against a good team that's going right now, we're looking forward to this game."

Tampa Bay will close out the four-game regular season series against the Panthers tonight. The Lightning have already taken two out of three from their in-state rival, winning 5-2 on Opening Night October 3 at AMALIE Arena and smothering the Panthers 2-1 in their last meeting December 10 at the BB&T Center.

Florida's lone victory in the series came in the second game of the season for both teams October 5 when the Panthers held on for a 4-3 home victory after leading 4-1 early in the third.

The Lightning have won seven in a row at home against Florida.

"We're heading into the break, but the quirks in the schedule, a team we're probably going to be battling against all year long and this is our final meeting against them," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "There are some teams we haven't played all year and we're going to be done with Florida. It's a big one because you can't get these points back and we're not going to be able to sit here in February, March and April and say, 'Oh, I wish we were playing Florida,' to get these four-point games, so this one clearly is a big one."

The Lightning are looking to end a two-game losing skid following a 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday and a 3-1 defeat in D.C. to the NHL-leading Washington Capitals Saturday. The Bolts were outplayed according to their head coach through the first two periods but still had an opportunity to earn points from the game when Nikita Kucherov leveled the score 1-1 midway through the third period after netting his 200th career NHL goal.

A 0-for-7 performance on the power play, however, including a failure to mount anything from nearly a minute-and-a-half of a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period with the game tied, led to the Bolts' demise in D.C.

"It wasn't a consistent effort I don't think the whole game against Washington," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "We didn't have great gaps, kind of let them possess the puck more than we did and we're typically a team that does well with possession. I think tonight feed off our crowd, get a good start and kind of go from there."

The Lightning have yet to win more than three-consecutive games this season and go on a streak that gets them right in the thick of the playoff chase.

Now would be as good a time as any to string some wins together with the amount of divisional matchups on the docket. The Lightning have fared well in their division, winning eight straight against Atlantic opponents after starting the division 2-2-0 versus the division.

Video: Steven Stamkos on the matchup with the Panthers.

"Very important, very important, every game's important for us when you're not in the playoffs," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of tonight's matchup against the cross-state rival Panthers. "We're still waiting to go on that run. We haven't done it yet."

JOHNSON RE-INJURED: Lightning forward Tyler Johnson won't play tonight versus the Panthers after re-aggravating the lower-body injury that forced him to miss four games December 9-14. Cooper said the hope is Johnson will be back to 100 percent once the team returns from three days off over Christmas.

"We're just giving him off tonight and then a few days during the break," Cooper said. "He just kept re-aggravating the injury, so a few days rest will do him some good."

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