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Confident Blue Jackets chase .500 mark vs. Lightning

by John McGourty

LIGHTNING (30-33-12) at BLUE JACKETS (31-32-13)

Last 10 --
Tampa Bay 3-6-1; Columbus 6-2-2

Season series --
This is the only meeting of the inter-conference rivals this season. Martin St. Louis scored with 1:56 left in overtime in a March 24, 2009 victory at Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay is 4-3-1 all-time against Columbus.

Big story -- This is a meeting of two teams that will likely not make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Columbus is already eliminated but has been playing very well lately, while Tampa Bay has lost six of its last eight. Tampa Bay coach Rick Tocchet bag-skated his team Sunday after it allowed the first six goals to Buffalo on Saturday in a 7-1 loss. Columbus coach Claude Noel has gained the support of his players, who speak openly of trying to save his job.

Team Scope:

Lightning -- Defenseman Matt Smaby left the bag-skate with back spasms. Five other players were excused due to injuries that probably won't keep them from playing Tuesday: Mattias Ohlund, Steve Downie, Matt Walker, Kurtis Foster and David Hale. The Lightning still have slim playoff hopes, but there seems to be more focus among fans about what changes new ownership will be making in the offseason.

Blue Jackets --
The Blue Jackets are 9-5-4 since Noel took over from Ken Hitchcock on Feb. 3. They beat the Blackhawks twice in four days by scores of 8-3 and 4-2. Reigning Calder Memorial Trophy winner Steve Mason has looked very sharp in recent weeks. A couple of older rookies with college experience have joined Columbus recently. Defenseman Grant Clitsome, 24, a ninth-round pick out of Clarkson in 2004, is plus-4 in his first five NHL games and moves the puck well. Undrafted center Trevor Frischmon, who played at Colorado College, made his NHL debut Sunday at age 28.

Who's hot --
Blue Jackets right wing Jakub Voracek has eight goals, 13 assists and a plus-9 rating in his last 17 games. Left wing Kristian Huselius has 13 points in eight games. Center Antoine Vermette has six points in four games. … St. Louis has four points in three games. Center Vincent Lecavalier has 11 points in 13 games. Center Steven Stamkos has 18 points in 15 games. Defenseman Mike Lundin has three points in three games.

Injury report --
Columbus center Chris Clark twisted his knee Sunday against the Blackhawks. Right wing Jared Boll has missed three games with a hand injury. Defenseman Rostislav Klesla has been out since Dec. 1 with a torn groin muscle. Defenseman Jan Hejda has missed six games with a knee injury and is out indefinitely. Center Derek McKenzie has missed nine games with a knee injury and may return soon.

Tampa Bay left wing Ryan Malone has missed nine games with an undisclosed injury and may return soon. Foster suffered a head injury two games back and is day-to-day. Hale suffered a lower-body injury in the same game and is day-to-day.

Stat pack -- Tampa Bay forwards Zenon Konopka and Downie rank first and third in the NHL with 236 and 202 penalty minutes respectively. No two NHL teammates have more combined minutes. The Lightning are third in the NHL with 1,209 penalty minutes, behind only Philadelphia and Anaheim.

Puck Drop -- Blue Jackets television color analyst Bill Davidge analyzes how Noel is building player confidence and team interdependence on the Blue Jackets Web site. Davidge, the former University of Miami coach, cites several examples, such as Derick Brassard, whose confidence fell this season, being allowed to take a defensive-zone faceoff late in Sunday's victory over the Blackhawks.

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