The Tampa Bay Lightning are getting close to having their entire forward group available with just six games left in the regular season.
Right wingers Nikita Kucherov and Ryan Callahan both participated fully in the Bolts’ morning skate ahead of tonight’s matchup against the Montreal Canadiens, the penultimate home game of the regular season. Kucherov and Callahan wore regular practice jerseys and took line rushes, Kucherov slotting in on the top line with Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos and Callahan manning the right side on a line with Cedric Paquette and Valtteri Filppula.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it will be a game-time decision whether either plays tonight.
“He had a good skate today,” Cooper said, referring to Kucherov. “We’ll see how he feels tonight, but we’re planning on playing him…He looks like he should be ready to go…Same for Callahan.”
Kucherov has missed the last two Lightning games. Callahan has been out for five games. Both players sustained lower-body injuries.
“It’s been tough not having a full lineup at this time of the year when you are battling for that playoff position,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “Cally is obviously a very valuable guy. Kuch is just as valuable and obviously (Filppula) coming back last game was nice, so it looks like they’re all going to be healthy with the exception of (Anton Stralman). At the same time, no excuses. We’ve got our lineup and this is the lineup we’re going to have moving forward. Hopefully we can continue to win games down the stretch.”
Kucherov ranks second on the Bolts for goals (29), assists (32) and points (61). Callahan continues to pace the Bolts for hits (156) and ranks first among Lightning forwards for blocked shots (70).
“They’re a big part of our team,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said. “When they’re out, it’s kind of a big hole there, so it’s nice to have those guys back. It’ll be fun to have a full lineup again.”
Despite posting a 3-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in their last game on Monday, the Lightning were not happy about their performance, aside from that of Bishop, who made 34 saves to record his sixth shutout of the season.
Bishop, quite literally, saved the Bolts from blowing it against the last-place team in the NHL.
Stamkos said Tampa Bay’s mindset coming into tonight’s third of four meetings this season with the Canadiens is to play “a lot more structured and competitive” than the team was versus the Maple Leafs.
“I know we got the win and a win is a win, especially at this time of the year, but we weren’t very impressed with our effort,” he said. “We’re looking to bounce back against a team that has had a lot of struggles this year, a lot of injuries but beat a hungry Red Wings team (Tuesday). They’ve still got some dangerous forwards. We need to be aware of that.”
Asked what would be the biggest adjustment the Lightning need to make tonight versus their win on Monday, Cooper joked, “We don’t have enough time to talk about that.”
“The one thing we just want to keep the same is Bishop’s game,” he added. “Everything else, we’ve got to change…Our compete, our structure, everything was off, so we took a little time off yesterday and kind of recharged the batteries. I liked what we had on the ice today. You just go over your habits and you look at, we’re playing Montreal tonight but we’re worried about ourselves. We’ve got to get our game in order because we can’t play against Montreal like we did against Toronto or they’ll run all over us.”
INCHING CLOSER TO POSTSEASON
Entering Thursday, the Lightning’s magic number to clinch a playoff spot is five, whereby any combination of points earned by the Bolts and points lost by the Red Wings will drop that number.
Tampa Bay could theoretically clinch a place in the postseason for the third-straight season with wins tonight against Montreal and Saturday in the home regular-season finale versus the New Jersey Devils, as long as one of those two wins comes in regulation or overtime.
The Bolts, however, aren’t worried about where they clinch or how they clinch.
They just want to get in.
And they’re certainly not sitting around the locker room figuring out their magic number.
“That’s too much thinking for me,” Bolts forward Brian Boyle joked. “We need to win. We need to get points. Coming down toward the end, the more points we get, especially on this home stand, the quicker we get a check mark next to our name.”
The Lightning also enter tonight’s game in first place in the Atlantic Division. The Bolts are tied with the Florida Panthers at 93 points but own the wins in regulation/overtime tiebreaker (Tampa Bay’s row is 41, Florida’s is 35). Tampa Bay has won only two division titles in franchise history, but the Bolts say they’re more worried about just getting into the playoffs rather than being able to put another division champs banner up in the Amalie Arena rafters.
“We haven’t talked about it really at all,” Bishop said. “Personally, it would be nice to finish first, but at the same time I don’t think it’s a big deal. It’s nice, but I don’t think we’re putting an emphasis on it right now. It’s more just kind of getting into the playoffs and getting home ice.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Bishop was the first goalie off the ice from morning skate and will make his 57th start of the season tonight. Bishop (191 games currently) will tie Nikolai Khabibulin (192) for second on the Lightning’s all-time games played list for a goaltender tonight…Ondrej Palat is on a season-best five-game point streak (3 goals, 5 assists)…Tampa Bay has dropped both previous meetings this season against Montreal but will play the Canadiens twice in the next 10 days, including the regular-season finale April 9 at the Bell Centre…The Bolts have won three of their last four regular-season games at home over the Canadiens…Steven Stamkos has points in six-straight games (5 goals, 4 assists) matching a personal season high.