Tampa Bay Lightning
@ Carolina Hurricanes
Greetings from Raleigh, where the Lightning face the Carolina Hurricanes tonight at the RBC Center. This is the eighth and final meeting of a regular season series that the Lightning lead, four games to three.
Over the next two nights, the Lightning will be involved in games that will help determine the Southeast Division champ. Carolina and Washington (tomorrow’s Lightning opponent) are tied atop the division with 90 points. Both clubs have two games remaining. Carolina holds the tiebreak. The team that doesn’t win the division very well could miss the playoffs entirely. The Lightning will expect, then, that the Hurricanes will treat tonight’s game like a playoff game (as the Caps will on Thursday). That means that the Bolts will face a desperate team, one that will be hungry to jump on loose pucks and determined to take the play to the Lightning. So it’ll be important tonight for the Lightning to match Carolina’s intensity level. That was something they were able to do against the Hurricanes last Saturday in their 2-1 win over Carolina at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Carolina has lost two in a row, but the Hurricanes are still 14-5-2 since Rod Brind’Amour suffered a season-ending knee injury. (This record includes victory in the game in which he got hurt – he was injured on his first shift so the ‘Canes essentially played that game without him). In addition to Brind’Amour, the Carolina has been without Justin Williams, Ray Whitney, Matt Cullen and Patrick Eaves for varying lengths of time. The Hurricanes, however, are starting to get healthy. Williams, Whitney and defenseman Bret Hedican, who missed one game due to a torso injury, returned to the lineup last night. But Williams, who had been out since December with a knee injury, hurt his back in the first period and is not expected to play this evening. Still, the return of Whitney, who has scored some crucial goals against the Lightning this year, certainly helps Carolina as does Hedican, one of their top defensemen.
Special teams were a key in last Saturday’s game between the clubs and should be a key again tonight. Tampa Bay went 1-6 on the power play and was a perfect 7-7 on the penalty kill. The Hurricanes lead the NHL in power play opportunities, so it’ll be important for the Bolts not only to kill penalties well, but also to avoid taking penalties in the first place. In their last visit to Raleigh on March 1, the Lightning, after a solid first period, spent most of the second period on the penalty kill. Consequently, they had great difficulty generating any sort of momentum or offensive pressure.
In returning from his knee injury, Mike Smith played well in Monday’s loss to Atlanta, allowing only one goal. He’ll be in net tonight and will try to outperform Cam Ward, who will be making his 19th consecutive start.
By the way, Lightning captain Tim Taylor will be joining me on the radio broadcast for the final three games of the season. He’s done a great job this year on Lightning Hockey Hotline, the team’s postgame radio call-in show, and will be just as terrific on the game broadcasts. So tune in!