LIGHTNING (6-5-2) at PANTHERS (6-4-2)
: SUN (HD), FS-F
: Tampa Bay 5-4-1; Florida 5-3-2.
: This is the third of six season meetings between these Southeast Division rivals. Florida won back-to-back meetings in October, prevailing in a shootout at home before winning 7-4 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
: Tampa Bay has won five of its last seven games -- including a hard-fought overtime win against Chicago on Friday -- to re-establish itself near the top of the division. However, both losses came on the road, where the Bolts are just 2-4-2. Florida, which has been solid thus far -- it enters Sunday even on points with Tampa Bay at 14 -- has won five of the last seven matchups at the BankAtlantic Center between the Sunshine State foes.
A couple of exhausting midweek practices paid off Friday night, when Tampa Bay topped Chicago on a Vincent Lecavalier
overtime winner. The Lightning benefited from solid top-line play, including a second-period hat trick from Steven Stamkos
. Martin St. Louis
assisted on Lecavalier's winner, and added two more during regulation time to give him at least an assist in six of his last seven games.
"Once we get settled in, we're a tough team to play against," said Stamkos, whose nine goals this season have come in the last 10 games.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher traded his exasperated early-week tone for one of reassurance after the game.
"Our team has character, resilience and we continue to persist," Boucher said. "We know we have that. We will never quit in any game and we need to remind ourselves of that. We built this attitude from last year and I'm real proud of this team."
Despite two consecutive shootout losses, Florida continues to ride what is, in comparison to past seasons, a very hot start. With at least a point in five of six, the Panthers have a winning record through 12 games for the first time since 2005. Even better, Florida feels like it is learning valuable lessons from those close defeats.
"Any time you spot a very good team two goals it's tough to climb back into it," Ed Jovanovski
said, referencing the 2-0 deficit Florida spotted Chicago. "We found a way, and forced overtime. It was a good point for us."
Jovanovski, along with front-line leaders Stephen Weiss
and Kris Versteeg
, are poised for big games Sunday. In their most recent shelling of Tampa Bay, Jovanovski tallied two assists while Weiss and Versteeg bagged two goals and two assists each.
Against Chicago, Stamkos reminded the League why he finished fifth in points last season when he torched a talented Blackhawks defense for three goals in the span of a period. Unfortunately, Stamkos has had trouble sustaining point streaks after his 91-point 2010-11, and has been relatively silent against Florida this season, with just one goal over the two matchups.
Tampa Bay's Scott Jackson and Mattias Ohlund
are both on injured reserve while they undergo rehabilitation for knee surgeries. … For Florida, goalie Scott Clemmensen
will miss at least a month for knee surgery, while recently acquired Mikael Samuelsson
is out indefinitely with a groin injury.
With both offenses clicking, Sunday's outcome could hinge in the crease. If that's the case, Tampa Bay could be in trouble. Likely starter Dwayne Roloson
conceded a career-high tying 7 goals in his last meeting with Florida, and is 2-3-1 with a 3.94 goals-against average in six games lifetime against the Panthers. Meanwhile, Florida veteran Jose Theodore
has won nine straight (2.10 GAA) against the Bolts, including the two early-season matchups in which he stopped 63 of 69 shots.
As much as they've struggled in recent years, one bright spot for the Panthers has been their home record against their cross-state foes. The Panthers are 16-3-3 against Tampa Bay at the BankAtlantic since 2005-06, which could hand them a slight edge against the road-weary Lightning.