PENGUINS (11-4-3) at LIGHTNING (8-7-2)
TV: NHLN-US, ROOT (HD), SUN (HD)
Pittsburgh 7-2-1; Tampa Bay 6-4-0
This is the first meeting between the teams this season. They split four games last season, but Tampa Bay got the last laugh with a seven-game win against Pittsburgh in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
On April 23 of this year, the Penguins were coming off a 3-2, double-overtime win over Tampa Bay in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, and heading home with a 3-1 series and a chance to wrap up a trip to the second round. Instead the Lightning blitzed Pittsburgh with an 8-2 win and reeled off two more victories, stunning the Pens and fueling a run that eventually brought the Bolts to within one win of the Stanley Cup Final.
No story surrounds the Penguins quite like the daily saga of whether captain Sidney Crosby
is ready to return to the ice after suffering a concussion last season. While there are reports that Crosby will not be in the lineup Thursday night, he is traveling with the team as it starts a brief two-game swing through the Sunshine State, leading to speculation that he could finally return Saturday when the Penguins visit the Panthers.
Lost in some of the Crosby news, however, is the fact the Penguins entered Wednesday tied with the Blackhawks for the most points in the League and, with wins in three of their last four and only one regulation loss this month, Pittsburgh doesn't appear to be slowing the pace. Looking at the competitive Atlantic Division, they can't afford to. The Rangers and Flyers are just two points back of the Pens, and both have at least one game in hand on Pittsburgh.
After Tampa Bay's impressive run in the 2011 postseason, the team's start this fall had been a little slow. The Bolts have made progress, however. The Lightning are just three points back of the Capitals and the surprising Panthers in the Southeast Division, and are only one point behind the Senators for eighth in the Eastern Conference. Those positions haven't been helped by Tampa Bay's recent road stumble, though. The Lightning are coming home from a short two-game trip to St. Louis and Winnipeg in which they lost both games and were outscored by a combined 8-2 margin.
Facing the top team in the conference won't make it easier to stop the slide, but at least the Lightning will get to spend the next five games with minimal travel. Thursday night opens a three-game homestand in which Tampa Bay will host Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Toronto before the Bolts have a home-and-home with division-rival Florida, meaning the Lightning won't have to leave their home state again until after Thanksgiving.
Who's Hot: Steven Stamkos
has continued his dependably high level of production this season, tallying 8 points in his last five games. … In his first full season in Pittsburgh, James Neal
has been a steady producer and recently the left wing has heated up in a big way. Neal has 4 goals and 7 assists in his last seven games.
In addition to the wait for Crosby's return, Pittsburgh's Zbynek Michalek
is expected to miss 1-3 more weeks with a broken finger while Ben Lovejoy
is out indefinitely after breaking his wrist earlier this month. … Tampa Bay's Ryan Malone
, who grew up a Penguins fan and once played for the franchise is questionable with an upper-body injury.
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
has already had an impressive season, going 10-2-1 in his 13 starts this year with a microscopic 1.96 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. What might be most impressive is he hasn't lost in regulation since Oct. 17, exactly one month prior to Thursday night's visit to Tampa Bay.
Even without their captain the Penguins have continued to simply hum along and, by and large, dominate their schedule. That isn't to say Thursday will be easy, but with the pain of last year's postseason collapse in the Pens' minds, a win that extended the Bolts' recent miseries would be at least a small measure of revenge.