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by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning @ Carolina Hurricanes

The Lightning’s losing streak is finally over, thanks to the club’s 3-1 victory last night over the Florida Panthers. Interestingly, in many ways this game was not appreciably different from the three contests that preceded it; the Lightning played sound defense, carried play for long stretches and out-chanced the opposition. Even though those previous three games ended in defeat for Tampa Bay, the team hadn’t played like “dogs”, as John Tortorella stated yesterday morning. What was missing, according to the head coach, was “a key play at a key time” – that play could be a goal, a save, a block, an important clear, stick check or battle won along the boards.

Last night, in addition to playing an overall, solid game, the Lightning got those key plays. Paul Ranger intercepted a Florida clearing attempt to help start the sequence that led to Jan Hlavac’s early goal. After stealing a pass from Mike Van Ryn, Vinny Lecavalier took a shot and Marty St. Louis netted the rebound. Johan Holmqvist made consecutive sprawling saves on Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton, Ville Peltonen and Horton again during a third period Florida power play. In the final minute when the Panthers had pulled the goalie for an extra attacker, Filip Kuba and Ranger combined to block a shot so that Vinny Prospal could spring Lecavlier for the empty-netter.

The formula must be the same tonight against the Southeast Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. The 2007-08 Hurricanes have stormed out of the gates much like the 2005-06 version that went on to win the Stanley Cup. As was the case with their Cup team, the Canes are scoring tons of goals – they lead the league with 58 goals scored and rank second in the NHL with a 26.2 power play percentage. A big part of Carolina’s resurgence revolves around the return of center Matt Cullen. During the 2005-06 season, Cullen regularly played the point on Carolina’s power play unit. Cullen signed with the Rangers for 2006-07 and without him, Carolina’s power play last year fell to 25th in the league. During this past offseason, the Hurricanes reacquired Cullen from the Rangers in a move that has paid immediate dividends. Cullen already has amassed 11 power-play points, including eight power-play assists. A healthy Cory Stillman, who missed half of last season with a shoulder injury, has racked up six power-play goals. Captain Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal, Justin Williams and Ray Whitney are also enjoying good offensive seasons.

Just as they have done in each of the last four games, then, the Lightning will look to play a solid defensive game that will lead to offensive scoring chances. Certainly, their commitment to defense will be critical against the high-scoring Hurricanes. Tampa Bay must avoid unnecessary trips to the penalty box – that’s not an easy task against the ‘Canes, who have already had 84 power play opportunities in just 15 games (that’s more than five chances per game). The rate is even higher at the RBC Center, where officials have given Carolina 44 opportunities in seven games.

The schedule does not favor the Bolts tonight. Tampa Bay played at home last evening and didn’t arrive in Raleigh until 1:30 a.m. Carolina, on the other hand, didn’t play last night and is therefore the fresher team. Lightning players are extremely well-conditioned so fatigue shouldn’t be a factor tonight. Still, there are ways in which Tampa Bay can make life easier on itself. Both teams want to possess the puck (and tire out the opposition, which has to chase and defend), so the Lightning players want to win the puck possession battle. Also, an early deficit for the Lightning could make tonight’s game feel like it’s an uphill battle. That’s why it would behoove Tampa Bay to grab a lead in this game. The Lightning finally got their first road lead of the season when St. Louis scored a first period power play goal Monday night in Sunrise. But the lead lasted only a couple of minutes before the Panthers tied it. The Bolts would love to get an early advantage and hold it tonight.

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