With 13 games remaining in the 2019-20 regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in a comfortable playoff position, six points behind the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division but 13 points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The same cannot be said for the Leafs, tonight's opponent for the Lightning.
A desperate Toronto team holds a tenuous grip on third place in the Atlantic and perhaps the final spot in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs with the number of quality teams in the Metropolitan Division that threaten to take both wild card spots. The Leafs are just one point ahead of the Florida Panthers, who have won two straight to narrow the gap between themselves and Toronto.
Video: Jon Cooper | Pregame at TOR
That makes tonight's matchup against the Lightning a supremely important one for the playoff aspirations of the Leafs.
The Lightning will have to draw motivation from other places, like rounding their game into shape for what they hope is a long postseason run. And of course, there's always incentive to beat the Leafs on their home ice and in front of their fans with the Canadian media at full attention.
Tampa Bay tends to play some of its best hockey in raucous environments where it has a target on its back, and that will certainly be the case tonight.
The Lightning, who close out a three-game road trip tonight at Scotiabank Arena (7 p.m. puck drop), will have to play better than they did two weeks ago against Toronto when they gave up a pair of power-play goals and fell 4-2 to even the regular season series at one game apiece with the Leafs.
"They came out, they shot a lot of pucks, they used their speed and their skill last time we played them," Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "Couple plays here and there they were able to capitalize on, one being penalties that I took in the last game. You eliminate those and you eliminate some of our turnovers and thought we played a fairly solid game against them. Want to make sure we're not feeding the beast for them. I know they're focusing a lot on producing more offense. We want to make sure we limit their skilled players to as little time and space as possible."
The Lightning are hoping to use tonight's game as well as the remaining games in the regular season to bring their defensive play back into form, much as it was earlier in the season when they went on 10-game and 11-game win streaks.
Video: Kevin Shattenkirk |Pregame at TOR
But they'll have to do it again without Victor Hedman tonight. Hedman was a full participant at morning skate and was a part of the Bolts' second power-play unit, typically good signs when an injured player is ready to return to the lineup. But head coach Jon Cooper said Hedman will not play tonight in Toronto.
Hedman is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. He'll miss his second-consecutive contest.
"You rank positions, the goaltender position is the big one, but you pull out what I consider every single year a top three defenseman in the league, that can dictate the way a game goes," Cooper said. "Victor Hedman can dictate a game. So when you're out 25, 26 minutes a night and all your special teams, a driving force of what helps drive your team, it has an effect. One thing about this year, we've had to live without (Ryan) McDonagh. We've had to live without Hedman. We've had to live without guys you need. Going back to adversity, those are things you have to fight through. But there's a hole when he's not there, there's no doubt."