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Pregame Notebook: Bolts hope to take advantage of ailing Penguins squad

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

If ever there was a chance for the Tampa Bay Lightning to break their streak of futility against the Pittsburgh Penguins, tonight’s game at Amalie Arena would be that opportunity.

The Penguins come to Tampa Bay ailing and ill. Monday night against the Florida Panthers, Pittsburgh was without 12 of its regulars due to injury or the mumps and skated eight players who began the year with the team’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In the third period versus the Panthers, right winger Blake Comeau was injured and didn’t return, becoming unlucky number 13 to go down.

Comeau’s status for tonight’s game is uncertain.

“They have a lot of good players out, but in Pittsburgh they had a lot of players out – (Sidney Crosby) wasn’t playing -- and they still managed to beat us, Lightning left winger Jonathan Drouin said. “It’s an NHL team still. They’re good players. Their call-ups are going to work hard, and obviously it’ll be a good game again.”

Including a 4-2 loss in Pittsburgh eight days ago, Tampa Bay has dropped the last 10 meetings with Pittsburgh, the Penguins longest winning streak in the history of the series between the teams. The Lightning’s last win against Pittsburgh came on November 17, 2011, at Amalie Arena.

The Bolts have collected just one point in those 10 consecutive losses.

“It just seems some teams you beat every time you play them and some teams you have difficulty with,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I don’t know what it is. For us, it’s obviously, I think right now the little drought that we’re in, it’s focusing on our game and not really worrying about what other teams are throwing at us.”

With so many Penguins inactive, the Lightning are hoping to capitalize on Pittsburgh’s misfortune and cut into the Penguins’ lead in the Eastern Conference standings. The Pens currently have a five-point advantage over the Bolts.

Pittsburgh still has Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the lineup, however, which will make Tuesday’s challenge difficult. The Penguins beat Tampa Bay earlier this season with Crosby sidelined (mumps).

“When they have Crosby and Malkin playing, I don’t care who else is on the ice, those guys can take over a game,” Stamkos said. “They have some very skilled players. I know a couple of their other guys have been out and it’s a tough stretch for them, but they’re still finding a way to win. They’re a team we’re chasing in the standings, so we want to make sure we come out tonight and try to get a win against this team, which we haven’t in a while.”

Despite dealing with a rash of injuries, the Penguins are 5-0-3 in their last eight games and have gotten at least one point in 16 of their last 19 (12-3-4).

“I feel for them,” Cooper said. “It’s a tough stretch, but they seem to be getting points regardless of who’s in the lineup for them… Sometimes it seems it doesn’t matter who they have in the lineup, they’ve found a way to get points away from us.”

BISHOP, GARRISON OUT

Cooper confirmed Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop (lower-body injury) and defenseman Jason Garrison (undisclosed) would miss the Pittsburgh game.

Both could potentially be back after the holiday break against Carolina. The Lightning will take three days off following tonight’s game, giving both extra time to heal.

Cooper hinted Garrison was the more likely of the two to return sooner.

“I would say decent chance,” Cooper said of Garrison’s chances to play versus the Hurricanes. “He’s close.”

With Bishop not playing, Andrei Vasilevskiy will likely make his third career NHL start and first in front of the home crowd at Amalie Arena tonight. Vasilevskiy, who set a Lightning rookie record with 45 saves in a loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday and earned his first NHL victory in his debut at Philadelphia last Tuesday, was the first goaltender off the ice at morning skate today, which typically signals a start in the upcoming game.

REASON FOR HOPE

The Lightning played quite possibly their best period of a recently-completed five-game road trip during the opening period in Pittsburgh.

Bishop, though, was injured with a little over a minute left in the first and didn’t return. The Bolts never recovered, giving up three straight goals after entering the first intermission tied 1-1.

Pittsburgh scored the opening goal shorthanded with 51 seconds left in the first, but the Lightning answered immediately, Tyler Johnson scoring on the power play 24 seconds later.

“We did a great job of keeping pucks in the offensive zone, not letting their skills guys have possession in the offensive zone for them,” Stamkos said. “Our D had great gaps. We were on top of the puck and that was one of those situations where, again, we don’t score, they get a goal. I know we get one right back but we were down. When we do have possession like that, we need to do a better job of sustaining it and ultimately putting the puck in the net.”

The key for the Lightning tonight will be to start as well as they did in the meeting with Pittsburgh and sustain that high level of play throughout.

“We owe them a much more competitive game than we had against them the last time,” Stamkos said. “Coming off a long trip, we want to reestablish our identity here at home and head to the break feeling good about our game.”

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