TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning will be looking to snap their five-game losing streak when they meet the Florida Panthers on Thursday at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Lightning have picked up four points since the NHL stopped for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and one thing is certain for Tampa Bay.
"We're running out of games," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Calling the game against the Panthers "a pivotal one," Cooper said he doesn't expect it to be easy.
"Florida, realistically, won't make the [Stanley Cup Playoffs], but look at their starting lineup tonight compared to the team we play on Oct. 27 (a 4-3 shootout win). I think there are eight different forwards playing," Cooper said. "But the guys that are playing are fighting for contracts and for jobs, not only for this year but for next year. These guys will be flying; they are hungry hockey players. As hungry as we are, wanting to stay in our playoff spot, these guys are hungry because they want to make sure they are on the Florida Panthers next year. The battle level will be intense."
Cooper will move forward Steven Stamkos to a line with forward Tyler Johnson. Stamkos has not scored a point since his return to the lineup three games ago.
"We're just trying to find a balance," Cooper said. "Everybody is worried about [Stamkos] scoring, but what about [Teddy] Purcell, [Nikita] Kucherov, [J.T.] Brown. Those guys have to get going. So we have to find combinations and need scoring from other players."
Stamkos continues to round into game shape, but after missing 45 games with a broken right tibia, the progress can take time.
"As much as I would love to be the player I was before the injury, you have to be realistic," Stamkos said. "It's probably not going to happen the first couple of games, but I'm building. I've felt pretty good out there, but it definitely doesn't feel the same as it did before, but that was pretty much expected. It may not feel that good until training camp next year."
Panthers coach Peter Horachek will start Dan Ellis in goal. Ellis, acquired in a trade for Tim Thomas, will make his first start with the Panthers.
"There are back-to-back games and Roberto Luongo is not going to play every game," Horachek said. "There is a home game [Friday], so maybe it was a good place for [Ellis] to go back in. He's going to play some games down the stretch, so we have to pick some games and this was the one."
Defenseman Alex Petrovic and forward Quinton Howden will be in the lineup Thursday. Each played with the Panthers previously, though Howden will be making his season debut.
"Petrovic has been here before," Horachek said. "He's a big guy, 6-foot, 4-inches, and he has some bite to him. He's going to need to be physical. He has to move the puck for us. Howden is fast, he is a good penalty-killer. He creates a lot on his own just by his speed. Hopefully that energy will translate into a solid game.
"All these young guys are auditioning for additional minutes in the next game and for next year. Every shift is important for these guys."
Here are the projected lineups for the Panthers and Lightning:
Scottie Upshall – Nick Bjugstad – Brad Boyes
Tomas Fleischmann – Vincent Trocheck – Jonathan Huberdeau
Quinton Howden – Brandon Pirri – Jimmy Hayes
Krys Barch – Scott Gomez – Joey Crabb
Ed Jovanovski – Tom Gilbert
Dmitry Kulikov – Brian Campbell
Dylan Olsen – Alex Petrovic
Injured: Sean Bergenheim (lower body), Jesse Winchester (lower body)
Ondrej Palat – Valtteri Filppula – Ryan Callahan
Teddy Purcell – Tyler Johnson – Steven Stamkos
J.T. Brown – Alex Killorn – Richard Panik
Tom Pyatt – Nate Thompson
Eric Brewer – Mark Barberio
Victor Hedman – Sami Salo
Keith Aulie – Matthew Carle
Scratched: Ryan Malone, Nikita Kucherov, B.J. Crombeen
Injured: Radko Gudas (lower body)