The two hottest teams in the National Hockey League will square off tonight when the Chicago Blackhawks play the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena, a replay of last season’s Stanley Cup Final.
The Blackhawks have won 12 games in a row, tying Florida for the longest win streak in the league this season.
The Lightning are on a more modest six-game win streak, which equals the second longest in team history and is closing in quickly on the franchise-best eight-game win streak set during the 2003-04 Stanley Cup season.
Someone’s bubble will burst tonight.
“It’ll be a huge challenge, and we know that they’ll be motivated because they’ve got a veteran group over there that knows how to get up for games like these,” said Lightning center Brian Boyle, who scored the game-winning shorthanded goal on Tuesday in the Bolts’ 6-4 victory over Edmonton, the Bolts’ sixth-consecutive win. “I’m sure they’ll be excited to play us, and they know we’ve been on a little bit of a roll too. We need to understand that the challenge is right there, and we should be excited about it.”
The Lightning’s list of vanquished opponents during their current run isn’t exactly a murderer’s row. The Bolts have downed Pacific cellar-dwelling Edmonton twice, a trio of teams in Vancouver, Colorado and Pittsburgh out of or barely in a playoff spot and Florida, which leads the Atlantic Division but is on a four-game losing skid.
Tonight will give the Lightning a chance to prove their win streak is for a real and they’re a team to be reckoned with over the second half of the season against a Chicago side that is, arguably, the odds-on favorite to hoist the Stanley Cup again this season.
“We’re starting to kind of find ourselves a little bit, so we’re pretty excited to play these guys,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s good that we’re 40-plus games in to have a game like this right in the middle of the season. It’s a good measuring stick game, so pretty excited to play it tonight.”
FINISH THE JOB
Despite winning six in a row, the Lightning have been shaky closing out games during their current run.
On Tuesday, Tampa Bay held a lead on four separate occasions but could only make it stick the final time. The Lightning held a 4-2 advantage going into the third period, gave up two quick goals to start the third but finally pulled ahead for good on Boyle’s shorthanded tally.
The Lightning gave up late leads to Vancouver and Pittsburgh too and had to win both games in overtime, so finding a way to close teams out once ahead will be paramount for the team moving forward.
“We’ve gotten a little loose in the third periods when we’ve had leads, and for whatever reason, it hasn’t been like it should be for us,” Boyle said. “We know how to defend. We know how to play with the lead. For whatever reason, we’ve made a couple mistakes that are more or less on us. It’s things that we’re doing, not necessarily things the other team is doing.”
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said it will take a full 60-minute effort to defeat Chicago tonight. If the Bolts take a few shifts off like they did against Edmonton, it will result in a long night for the home team.
“We’ve got to focus on what we do as a team,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we don’t turn pucks over in the danger areas. For us, it’s about playing high-percentage plays when we have to, but at the same time, we can’t get away from the skill we have. We have a lot of skill up front as well. We can make plays and be dangerous when we have a lot of room and space. We’re going to try and bury the chances that we get, play good defensively, it all starts with that, and then we know we have high speed and high skill up front. We’ll take our chances if we play well defensively tonight.”
ODDS AND ENDS
The Bolts six-game win streak is tied for the eighth-longest in the NHL this season…Tampa Bay has scored three or more goals in six-straight games, their longest stretch this season scoring three or more…The Lightning are 20-2-3 this season when scoring three or more goals…Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov is on a six-game point streak and has five goals and four assists over that stretch…Lightning center Vladislav Namestnikov has multiple points in four of his last five games…The Bolts now rank T-11th in the NHL for goals scored at 2.67 per game after spending much of the first half of the season ranked in the 20s…The Lightning own the seventh-best goal differential in the NHL at +14.