For the third game in a row, the Tampa Bay Lightning will play a team at the bottom of the divisional standings when they host Columbus tonight at Amalie Arena.
Four days ago, the Lightning were upended 2-1 in a shootout in Buffalo.
Two days later, the Bolts responded with a 5-0 shutout of the Sabres, the last-place team in the Atlantic Division.
Columbus occupies the eighth and final position in the Metropolitan Division standings. Points-wise, the Blue Jackets (18) are next-to-last in the NHL. Only Edmonton (17) has a lower total.
But, just like Buffalo earlier, Columbus is on a bit of a run lately. The Blue Jackets enter tonight’s game having swept a home-and-home with Florida to win two straight for only the third time this season.
Most recently, the Blue Jackets defeated the Panthers 4-3 in a shootout in Sunrise on Thursday.
“It doesn’t matter who you play against, you have to be ready right from the start,” Lightning forward Cedric Paquette said. “We know all the teams can play good, so we’ve got to be ready.”
Asked if he pays attention to where an opponent sits in the standings before a game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it has no bearing on his team.
“Especially in December,” Cooper said. “Now, if you were asking me that question end of March when now you’re all of a sudden you’re putting yourself in a playoff position like who you might play, well, then naturally, yes. In December, no chance. I couldn’t even tell you where Columbus is in the standings, nor do I care. And I bet you if you asked [Columbus head coach] Todd Richards, he’d probably say the same thing.”
Columbus (8-15-2, 18 points) started the season winning three of its first four and four of its first six. A nine-game losing streak from late October to mid-November, however, has set the Blue Jackets back in the standings. Tampa Bay (18-6-3, 39 points) defeated the Blue Jackets 7-4 in Columbus during that skid.
Tonight’s meeting is the second of three this season between the two teams. The Lightning host Columbus on January 31.
“I know the other night they beat Florida and they’re probably feeling good about themselves,” Cooper said. “We’ve got to find a way to beat them tonight.”
A pair of Bolts have milestones in their crosshairs tonight versus Columbus.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos needs just one more goal to reach No. 250 for his NHL career. Since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, no player in the NHL has scored more goals than Stamkos’ 226, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (214) being the closest.
Stamkos has 16 goals and 16 assists so far this season for a team-leading 32 points.
“Honestly, with Stammer, I need to see him shoot more,” Cooper said. “When you see him with five, six, seven shots, all of a sudden he’s got one, maybe two goals. Remember Montreal, I think, he had 12 shots and had 3 [goals] that night. But, some of the things in these players which ultimately makes them great guys is they want to help other guys out, they want to make that play so somebody else can score. You don’t always see that from somebody that’s a natural goal scorer.”
Cooper said Stamkos’ role on the Lightning has changed a bit with longtime standout Martin St. Louis’ move to the New York Rangers at the trade deadline last season. Where before Stamkos could be selfish and shoot more with St. Louis setting him up, now Stamkos is looking to be more of a set-up man in addition to a pure goal scorer.
“It’s rounded out his game a little bit,” Cooper said. “Still, I don’t want to confuse Steven Stamkos with Adam Oates. He’s a shooter and we want him to continue to shoot the puck because not a lot of guys are as gifted putting the puck on the net as he is.”
Additionally, Lightning forward Brett Connolly is slated to skate in his 100th NHL game tonight.
“Good for him. He deserves it,” Cooper said. “The progress he’s made, I remember when he came down, especially, a lot of kids don’t go through this, but to be sixth [pick] overall [in the 2010 NHL Draft], to play in 50-plus games in the NHL and then have to go to the American League the next year and play a full season, I’m sure on the ego that’s somewhat bruising. But, he stuck with it and there’s definitely been ups and downs, but he has found his way to the net and that kid scores goals.”
Connolly has scored three goals over the last three games, including the first multi-goal game of his career Monday at the New York Rangers.
ODDS AND ENDS
Radko Gudas ranks first on the Lightning for hits (80) and blocked shots (48). Gudas scored his second goal of the season (initially credited to Nikita Kucherov but changed to Gudas following the game) to ignite the Bolts’ offense in a 5-0 drubbing of Buffalo on Thursday…Tyler Johnson is on a five game point and assist streak…Ben Bishop wasn’t seen at the Bolts’ optional morning skate Saturday, indicating he will start in net versus the Blue Jackets. Bishop is tied for the second-most wins in the NHL (16) and has won five straight after notching his first shutout of the season on Thursday...Cooper said tonight’s lineup would mirror Thursday’s.