At the front of the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room, a floor-to-ceiling white board gets updated daily with the current standings in the NHL.
Included on the list in dry erase marker is the Bolts playoff position compared to the rest of their Eastern Conference opponents as well as Wild Card standings and each teams’ games played.
With 17 games remaining in the Bolts’ regular season and the postseason scheduled to start in a little over a month, the board serves as a constant reminder of where the Lightning stack up in the race for playoff seeding, home-ice advantage, etc.
“It’s tough not to see it every day,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “But, you’re aware of Montreal, Detroit. It seems like Montreal’s lost a couple for the first time in a very long time…We just have to focus on ourselves. I think you look at our schedule, the amount of divisional games we have down the stretch, it’s going to come up to what we do as a team. It’s pretty much up in our hands where we finish.”
A quick glance at the standings shows just how wide open the Eastern Conference is this year. Tampa Bay was at the top for a good portion of the season until Montreal overtook the Lightning a couple weeks ago. The New York Rangers have made a push of late and are tied with the New York Islanders for first in the Metropolitan Division, each owning 85 points. Detroit is just a point behind the Lightning in the Atlantic while Pittsburgh and Washington are right on the heels of the two New York teams in the Metropolitan.
Just seven points separate first and seventh place in the Eastern Conference currently, which should make for a competitive batch of first-round playoff games come mid-April.
“You battle so hard just to get in the playoffs, and we’ve seen previous years it doesn’t matter what the seeds are, once you get in, it’s a different animal,” Stamkos said. “We have that belief that if we play well heading down the stretch, we have the goaltending, we’ve added some depth on D and we know we have the firepower up front that in a series, anything can happen. That’s what’s so fun about this time of year is playing those meaningful games and then not knowing really what to expect come playoff time that this could be a great, magical year.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it’s hard to target one team in the East as being the team to beat because they all have the capability of winning the Stanley Cup.
“If you look at them, they’ve all got good goaltending, they’ve all got exceptional defensemen and they’ve got players that can put pucks in the net,” Cooper said. “I think a lot of teams are very similar. They all play with pace…To pick somebody in the East, I couldn’t do it.”
BROWN HURT; NAMESTNIKOV RECALLED
The Lightning recalled forward Vladislav Namestnikov yesterday from their AHL affiliate in Syracuse, a move made after J.T. Brown suffered an upper-body injury in Tuesday’s 3-0 shutout win over Buffalo.
Brown is listed as day-to-day.
“He’s banged up,” Cooper said. “Nothing long term, serious, but he’s a no go tonight.”
Namestnikov has moved up and down between Syracuse and Tampa Bay a few times this season, but with the playoffs approaching, Cooper said his time in the NHL could become more permanent.
“He’s been having an exceptional year down in the American League,” Cooper said. “…You could make an argument he should be playing with us right now because he’s an NHL player. I think he’s going to find time with us down the stretch here as we move forward trying to battle our way into the playoffs, but the fact that he’s played with us a little bit, he’s familiar with us, this only helps.
“But as I said, he’s the next one coming through the door.”
Namestnikov has been working on becoming a more complete player in Syracuse. He said he’s gotten faster and more confident while trying to add muscle to become more of a physical player.
With Brown out of the lineup, Namestnikov views tonight’s game against Toronto as an audition of sorts to show the coaches his improvement and make his case to stay in Tampa Bay for good.
“For sure it’s a big chance for me,” Namestnikov said. “I’m just going to try to show everything I can do and just try to help the team win.”
DROUIN CONTINUES DEVELOPMENT
Since going through a tough stretch in mid-February in which he failed to reach 10 minutes of ice time in four of six games, Lightning rookie Jonathan Drouin has seen his role increase over the last four games, averaging 14 minutes and five seconds TOI.
Drouin’s production has improved too. He’s recorded an assist in two of the last three games and his impressive stickhandling has been on full display during recent shifts.
“I think I feel more confident with the puck, and in my own zone I think it’s even better,” Drouin said. “I’m happy with the way I’ve played.”
Drouin made a highlight reel pass to set up Brian Boyle’s goal three games ago versus Chicago, slipping a behind-the-back pass between the legs of Blackhawks’ Teuvo Teravainen from behind the net into the slot for a wide-open Boyle, who easily buried the gift.
Drouin thinks as he skates more games in the NHL, plays like the one he created against Chicago will become more commonplace.
“I think it’s more games and getting used to the league,” he said. “And I’m slowly getting used to the league.”
Good news for Lightning fans; bad news for the rest of the NHL.