LIGHTNING (9-9-2) at PANTHERS (12-6-3)
TV: SUN, FS-F
Tampa Bay 5-5-0, Florida 6-2-2
This is the fourth meeting of the season between these two teams, who will play again Saturday. Florida has won two of the first three (2-0-1), and two of the contests have gone to shootouts.
Two geographical rivals heading in opposite directions -- the Panthers have surged to the top of the Southeast Division while the Lightning have slipped to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay has lost four of five and has fallen into a three-way tie for last place in the Southeast. The Lightning have been outscored 20-9 in those games, and it has included a 5-2 loss to Winnipeg and a 7-1 loss at home against Toronto. After this home-and-home, the Lightning have six of the next seven contests on the road.
"Our attitude in the face of adversity wasn't good. … It usually is," coach Guy Boucher said. "I'm certainly not one to get discouraged. There are solutions."
Florida lost three straight home games in the shootout, but the Panthers have responded by winning six of eight games since. The first three wins were blowouts on the road in Toronto, Winnipeg and Dallas, while the last three have been one-goal squeakers at home.
The Panthers are now officially the surprise of the NHL through the first quarter of the season. They have a ton of new faces, but coach Kevin Dineen has a collection of players not expected to be much more than a fringe playoff contender at the top of the Southeast and one point shy of the conference lead.
Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier
has scored 3 goals in the past three games for the Lightning. He has 9 this season -- last season, Lecavalier didn't reach that mark until February before a hot finish helped him finish with 25. ... Defenseman Jason Garrison
had 7 career goals in 113 games before this season, but he is already at 8 this season and leads the League at that position.
The Lightning are still without defenseman Mattias Ohlund
after arthroscopic surgery on both knees in the preseason. Steve Downie
left the loss to Toronto with an upper-body injury. ... Florida is without forwards Scottie Upshall
(hip) and Mikael Samuelsson
(abdominal), and Marcel Goc
(upper body) has missed the past four games.
Tampa Bay goaltender Dwayne Roloson
was instrumental in helping the Lightning to within one win of the Stanley Cup Final, but he's not playing at the same level this season. His 3.46 goals-against average is tied for the second-worst in the League among qualified goalies, and his .887 save percentage is 40th out of 43. ... Florida has been scoring goals at a much greater clip this season, but the Panthers are also getting some great goaltending. They have used three goaltenders, but the Panthers have a .927 team save percentage, which is tied for third best in the League.
Before this season, the "best line in the NHL" discussion included the big three in Anaheim, the Sedins plus one in Vancouver and some part-time units in Pittsburgh, Washington and Detroit. Well, the best line in the NHL this season has been the top line for … the Panthers?
, Stephen Weiss
and Kris Versteeg
had no history before this season and none were considered more than pretty good but not great players, but they have been fantastic for Florida. They have all been on the ice for at least 23 Florida goals at even strength (Weiss for 24), and they rank 1-2-3 in the League. They've also faced some tough competition -- Weiss and Flesichmann are in the top 20 in Behind the Net's quality of competition ratings (QUALCOMP) and Versteeg checks in at No. 26.