The Red Wings (65 points) vaulted over the Lightning (64) on Tuesday and are tied with the New York Islanders for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Bolts are currently third in the East.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said tonight’s game will be a great challenge for the Bolts and a chance to see where they stand against one of the top teams in the league.
“People can say what they want, we’re playing the best team in the Eastern Conference right here,” he said. “I think everything goes through (Detroit)…They’re the real deal. They’ve got goaltending. They’ve got defense. They’ve got veteran players that are stars. They’ve got young guns that can play.”
Detroit has won six in a row entering tonight’s matchup with the Lightning.
“There’s a reason why they’re always in the playoff mix every season,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “They’re veteran, they know how to play the game and this is the time of the year they go on those streaks where they put themselves in a position to be in the playoffs. The hockey now, especially after the All-Star break, is what separates a playoff team from the non-playoff teams.”
Detroit has qualified for the postseason the past 23 seasons.
“I don’t care who you are, in any sport, if this was the days when 16 out of 21 teams made it, but with 30 teams in the league, to make the playoffs every single year and with the turnover of players, it’s a remarkable feat,” Cooper said.
The Lightning are going for nine home wins in a row tonight, which would set a franchise record.
The Bolts current eight-game win streak ties a mark set during the 2005-06 season.
Part of the reason for the home success, according to Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop, who is scheduled to make his sixth-straight start tonight, is the energy inside a consistently packed Amalie Arena.
As a player, when you go out there, it’s a sellout almost every night,” he said. “It’s rowdy. It makes it a lot of fun to go out there and play. You get up for games…Whenever you go out to an empty building, it’s kind of hard to get up. But when you have 19,000 people out there, you don’t want to let them down.”
Stamkos said the Lightning tend to get off to better starts at home, which accounts for their sparkling home record of 19-4-1.
The Bolts are just 11-11-3 on the road.
“That’s been our Achilles heel all year away from home is being behind the eight ball to start the game,” Stamkos said. “It’s so tough in this league to win when it’s 0-0 to begin the game, never mind when you’re down one or two in the first period. We’ve been off to good starts, it just seems like we’re more comfortable here.”
Whenever Detroit comes to town, a sizable portion of the crowd tends to wear red. The banter between the Lightning and Red Wings fans creates an electric atmosphere the players say they can feel from the bench and ice and feed off of.
“It reminds me of a college atmosphere, a little bit more rowdy, you’ve got the fans going back and forth,” Bishop said. “It gives you a little bit more incentive to keep the other team off the scoreboard because you don’t want to see them stand up and cheer.”
Cooper said in the short time he’s been the head coach in Tampa Bay, he’s noticed a shift in the stands from 50 percent Red Wings fans to about 30 percent now when Detroit visits Amalie Arena.
“It’s a natural progression of we’re a team that plays in the south and have a lot of fans or people migrate to the south during the winter, but, ultimately, you’re going to play in front of a sold-out building and that’s what as hockey fans you want,” Cooper said. “I respect people coming to the building and cheering for who you want to, but I’ve seen this turn of our fans more and more, this is becoming our building. You can see by our home record, the way we play here, the fans, they’ve really jumped on our backs and we’ve jumped on theirs.”
BLUE LINE YOUTH
With long-term injuries to defensemen Radko Gudas (knee surgery, out four months) and Matt Carle (torn adductors in lower abdomen, out six-eight weeks), a number of young blue liners have had to fill in and play more minutes.
Spot starter Mark Barberio has skated in 15 of the last 19 games. Prospects Nikita Nesterov and Luke Witkowski were called up from the Bolts’ AHL affiliate in Syracuse and are getting their longest taste of NHL action.
There was some concern the losses of Gudas and Carle, two key members of the Lightning defense, could derail a promising start to the season for the Bolts.
The youngsters have played well in their absence, however, and the results have been mostly positive so far.
“It’s been a lot of fun to see their progression, and they’re just going to get better and better the more games they play,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said.
Witkowski proved he could be a contributor after an outstanding showing during training camp in which he was one of the last three players cut from the Lightning. Nesterov was a standout for the Crunch during the first half of the season and was selected to play in the AHL All-Star Game.
“We know we have big depth on the back end either playing in Syracuse or playing up here,” Hedman said. “I think that shows in training camp the way the guys played and in the exhibition games and they’ve been carried on up here.”