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Lightning come home to face improving Wild

by Eric Goodman /

WILD (7-10-0) at LIGHTNING (6-4-5)

Last 10 -- Minnesota 6-4-0; Tampa Bay 4-3-3

Season series -- This is the only game between the Wild and Lightning in 2009-10. Minnesota swept the two-game series last season with a 1-0 shootout victory on Oct. 18, and a 4-2 regulation win on Nov. 28. Minnesota is 7-2-1 lifetime against the Lightning, including 3-1-1 at Tampa Bay.

Big story -- Tampa Bay remains the only team in the Eastern Conference without a regulation loss at home this season, with its three defeats at St. Pete Times Forum all coming via the shootout. The Wild are starting to dig out after falling into a big hole early in the season, largely because they've struggled to score. But they broke out on Tuesday night at Toronto, with Mikko Koivu getting a goal and two assists during a three-goal second period in a 5-2 victory over the Leafs -- the franchise's first-ever win at the Air Canada Centre.

Team Scope:

Wild -- Minnesota has experienced a severe case of homesickness, winning only two out of 10 games played on the road. But they did kick off their current four-game road trip with the win in Toronto on Tuesday and have won four of their last five games overall. Right wing Martin Havlat scored just his second goal of the season on Tuesday and is still not living up to his role as the replacement for all-time franchise leading scorer Marian Gaborik, who signed a multiyear contract with the New York Rangers this past offseason.

At the beginning of this season, the Wild appeared to have struggled to adapt to new coach Todd Richards' open-ice style of play after participating in former coach Jacques Lemaire's neutral-zone trap system for the past eight seasons. But it now seems like they have finally found their stride, averaging three goals over their last five games.

Lightning -- Tampa Bay begins a brief two-game homestand after picking up five points in a four-game road trip last week. The Lightning are in second place in the Southeast Division thanks to the strong play of second-year center Steven Stamkos (team leader and tied for second in the NHL with 12 goals) and left wing Ryan Malone, who is second on the club with 10 goals. Goalie Antero Niittymaki, an off-season acquisition, has been solid with a 4-1-2 record over eight games played this season and is expected to start in his fourth consecutive game.

The strong play by the Bolts has captain Vincent Lecavalier excited about his team's chances.

"We're right in the thick of it," Lecavalier said. "The way it feels in the dressing room, the way we're acting, the way we're playing, the confidence we have, we're right there, and we want to stay there. It really feels like a team."

Who's hot -- For Minnesota, Kyle Brodziak has tallied four points over his last four games. For Tampa Bay, Stamkos has 11 points and Lecavalier has nine over the last 10 games.

Injury report -- The Wild have Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) on injured reserve, while right wing Petr Sykora is expected to miss his second consecutive game after suffering a concussion against Dallas on Saturday. The Lightning will skate with a fully healthy squad.

Stat pack -- The Lightning's Niittymaki leads the NHL with a .940 save percentage so far this season. Minnesota had been 0-for-14 on the power play before cashing in two of its four opportunities against Toronto.

Puck drop -- This should be an exciting matchup considering that both teams have displayed a strong offensive game with quality goaltending over their last few games. Both the Wild and Lightning should continue picking up the tempo so respective goalies, Niklas Backstrom and Niittymaki, should each expect to face plenty of shots.

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