PANTHERS (29-39-12) at LIGHTNING (44-25-11)
TV: SUN (HD)
Florida 1-6-3; Tampa Bay 5-3-2
Sixth and final meeting of the season between these Southeast Division rivals. While the Lightning are the ones going to the playoffs, the Panthers have enjoyed the majority of the success in their 2010-11 matchups, taking four of five. That includes winning both previous games at the St. Pete Times Forum via the shootout, as well as the most recent meeting, 4-3 on a Jason Garrison
overtime goal March 12 in Sunrise.
About the only definite at this moment is Tampa Bay will be in the playoffs. Almost everything else remains up in the air. The Lightning will probably be the fifth seed, but they could still catch the Penguins for fourth if they win their two remaining games and Pittsburgh doesn't pick up more than a point in the two games it has left. And while it once seemed a Lightning-Penguins first-round series was inevitable, Pittsburgh is now just one point behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division lead, so if the Flyers slip they could end up as Tampa's opponent instead.
It's still possible for Florida to escape the Eastern Conference basement and climb over the New York Islanders and/or Ottawa in the standings, as the Panthers are two points behind those clubs with each having a pair of games remaining. But they'll need to play better than they did in Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Capitals, a game they trailed 4-0 before David Booth
and Mike Santorelli
scored late in the third.
"You can look for silver linings. You know what? We're losing games, that's the bottom line," coach Peter DeBoer said. "So I don't have a lot of good to say."
Each of Tampa Bay's last two games were against opponents scratching and clawing to try to get into the playoffs. The Lightning blanked the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday, but their three-game road trip came to an end with a 4-2 loss to the Sabres on Tuesday. On the plus side, Ryan Malone
and Vincent Lecavalier
had the goals. Malone has scored twice in three games since returning from injury and Lecavalier didn't miss a game after taking a stick to the eye against the Hawks.
"I think I've just been keeping it simple and helping the guys communicate out there," Malone said. "I've felt pretty good."
Booth leads the Panthers with 23 goals and has rebounded nicely from an injury-marred 2009-10 season. … Martin St. Louis
has 4 goals and 6 assists during a seven-game points streak for the Lightning. Lecavalier has goals in consecutive games.
Florida's leading scorer, Stephen Weiss
, and defenseman Alexander Sulzer are day-to-day with groin injuries. Goalie Tomas Vokoun has been bothered by back spasms, but is expected to be available. … Tampa Bay defensemen Eric Brewer
and Victor Hedman
are day-to-day with lower-body injuries. Defenseman Randy Jones (high ankle sprain), who hasn't played in a month, practiced with the team Thursday.
Stat pack: Scott Clemmensen
has started the last four games for the Panthers with Vokoun ailing. His 30 games this season are second only to the 40 he played for the Devils in 2008-09 as far as a career best. … St. Louis has 189 points in 162 games since the start of the 2009-10 season, with his 1.17 points-per game average ranking fifth behind Sidney Crosby (1.43), Alex Ovechkin (1.29), Daniel Sedin (1.29) and Henrik Sedin (1.26).
The picture could clear up a lot more for Tampa Bay after Friday's games, with Pittsburgh facing off against the New York Islanders and Philadelphia taking on Buffalo.