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Bolts welcome Red Wings to start push for the playoffs

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning return from a six-day layoff between their last game before the All-Star break versus Toronto and tonight’s matchup at Amalie Arena against the Detroit Red Wings.

The Lightning were buzzing before the layoff, winning eight of their last nine games. The Bolts own the NHL’s best record over their last 10 (8-2-0).

So, there is some thought the All-Star break might have came at an inopportune time for Tampa Bay, the extended rest serving perhaps to cool off the red-hot Bolts. Lightning center Tyler Johnson, however, doesn’t think that will be an issue.

“You don’t skate very much, so you’re a little rusty from that,” he said about the multiple days off. “But other than that, we practiced yesterday. We had pregame skate today, starting to get everything back, get the rust off and get the mentality of playing back. The first couple shifts are huge. It’s going to be a lot of effort, a lot of things going. You kind of have to be patient. Some things might go wrong right away, but you’ve just got to keep going after it.”

Veteran center Brian Boyle said it helps to have a big game right out of the break to jumpstart the post-All-Star Game portion of the schedule. Tampa Bay and Detroit are tied for second in the Atlantic Division standings and are part of a group of 11 teams within seven points of one another in the Eastern Conference standings, all fighting to get into the playoffs.

“We need to understand that (every game’s) going to be really meaningful,” Boyle said. “It’s so tight. So many teams are in the mix for playoff spots. But, the fact that it’s Detroit, we’re neck-in-neck, same amount of points, right in our division, had a nice little series last year in the playoffs, all those things, maybe it is a good thing that we have that boost.”

BUDDING RIVALRY

The Lightning and Red Wings have seen quite a bit of one another over the last couple seasons.

Tampa Bay nearly swept all four regular-season games from Detroit last season before the Red Wings finally broke through (March 28) in the final matchup, shutting out the Bolts 4-0 and becoming the first team all season to keep the Lightning off the scoreboard.

In the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Detroit held a two-games-to-one advantage and a 2-0 lead late in Game 4 before the Lightning rallied to win the game, even the series and eventually move on to the Second Round after seven intense, back-and-forth games.

Detroit has had the better of Tampa Bay this season, the Red Wings winning both previous matchups at Joe Louis Arena by a combined 5-2.

Add in the fact Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is a legend in Detroit from his playing days there and Bolts head coach Jon Cooper is good friends with Jeff Blashill, his counterpart in Detroit, and there are a number of connections between the two squads.

“They’re a good team,” Cooper said. “They’re a little bit of a measuring stick. They’ve been in the playoffs for 24-straight years. And we’re getting down the stretch and in line in points with them. To me, it’s a little bit, ‘OK, where are we at?’”

Tonight’s game could have a big impact in the Atlantic standings, the winner moving ahead of the pack chasing Florida for first.

“We’re neck and neck in the standings with Detroit, but it seems like we’ve been like that all season long,” Johnson said. “When you play against a team like that, it’s almost like a four-point night compared to two because you’re losing a game and they’re also gaining two points. For us, it’s going to be a big test. You don’t get these two points, it kind of puts you back quite a bit in the big scheme of things. They’re a playoff team. They’re a team we’re going to have to contend with, so this is going to be a good test.”

SCORE MORE, WIN MORE

Tampa Bay’s goal differential is plus-10 over the last nine games. Not coincidentally, the Lightning have won eight of those nine games.

“I think that’s one of the numbers we look and say, ‘OK, where is your team at?’” Cooper said. “If that number is not very high, it probably means you’re not scoring. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not winning, but you’re definitely not scoring. Naturally, we like to have that number well into the plus side. We’re used to having it on the plus side. The fact that it’s grown in the last 10, 12 games is a good sign for us.”

The Lightning, buoyed by their play of late, are plus-13 for the season, which ranks eighth in the NHL.

ODDS AND ENDS

Ondrej Palat will play in his 200th career NHL game tonight provided he’s in the lineup…Ben Bishop will likely get the start in net tonight for the Bolts as he was the first goalie off the ice at Tampa Bay’s optional morning skate. Bishop will be making his 37th start of the season…Steven Stamkos needs three more tallies to reach the 300-goal milestone. Stamkos, with 21 goals this season, ranks tied for 12th in the NHL for goals currently…Tampa Bay has won six-straight games at Amalie Arena, the league’s second-longest active home win streak.

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