It appears to be getting late early for the Tampa Bay Lightning
The team gave away an invaluable point Wednesday night against Buffalo when it couldn't hold onto third-period leads of 2-0 and 3-1 against the Sabres. Tampa Bay lost the game in overtime when Thomas Vanek potted his third goal of the night and 25th of the year 2:25 into the extra session.
The fact that the Lightning allowed Vanek to single-handedly steal a point from them with less than three minutes left in regulation doesn't bode well for the team's playoff chances down the stretch. Before burying the OT winner – and quite possibly Tampa's playoff hopes – the Sabres' leading goal-scorer brought his team back from the dead by scoring two goals 36 seconds apart, tying the score at 3-3 with just 1:45 left in the third.
The devastating loss to the Sabres was the Lightning’s fifth in their last 10 games. In order for the team to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth season in a row, it can't afford to be giving away leads and precious points like it did the other night in Buffalo.
Heading into the weekend, the Lightning were 11 points shy of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and 10 points off the pace in the Southeast Division. Tampa Bay has 21 games remaining – 10 at home and 11 on the road. While all of those games will play a role in whether the team will have an early summer, none will be more important than the nine the Bolts have left against the teams in their division.
In their first 23 games against the Southeast, the Lightning were an unimpressive 10-11-2. The Bolts will need contributions on offense and defense from everyone in the lineup in those vital games, otherwise they'll be on the outside looking in come playoff time.
One player who will be counted on heavily in those intradivision matches is Vaclav Prospal. The 33-year-old winger has 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) against the Southeast this season.
"Our division has really improved. In the last five years; all the teams have really stepped it up, so it's been tough," Prospal explained. "Every year since the lockout there has been a different division winner. There's a lot of good and talented players in our division, so you really can't take any nights off. Every game is important."
In the last few weeks, Prospal has done everything in his power to keep his club in contention in the East. He has nine goals and 10 points in his last 10 games, with two of his tallies coming on the power play and a pair of game-winners. The last time Prospal scored eight goals or better in 10 games was in the beginning of the season, when he scored nine goals in the team's first 10 games.
"Right now, playing with Vinny (Lecavalier) and Marty (St. Louis), I know I have to get my nose dirty in front of the net," Prospal said. "There I have a chance at rebounds and deflections and stuff like that, but I'll take the goals any way they come."
If this year is any indication, Prospal must like his goals in bunches, as he surpassed his career high for goals in a season when he scored his 26th on Feb. 14 in Philadelphia in only the team's 58th game of the season. As a matter of the fact, Tampa's entire top line has put up monster numbers all year, combining for 204 points this season, which ranks them second among trios in the entire NHL.
"It's great for me as a player on this team to be playing with Vinny and Marty. Those are two star players in this League and I'm more than happy to be playing with them on the same line," Prospal said. "Right now we have so many games that we've played together that we developed a trust in each other. Since we've been playing together for so long, we know what the other guy is going to do. We work well off one another."
"It's great for me as a player on this team to be playing with Vinny and Marty. Those are two star players in this League and I'm more than happy to be playing with them on the same line" - Lightning center Vaclav Prospal
Combined this season, the Tampa trio has nine multi-goal games, 22 multi-assist games and 61 multi-point games between them.
"Those two guys are more scorers than play-makers," Prospal said. "Vinny is the one with the big shot and Marty always finds the open space with his quickness, so for me, it's like a dream come true to play with them."
It also will be a dream come true for Prospal if he can help his team get back to the postseason this year.
"Last year I went through a tough period when I couldn't score a goal and I turned my season around in the second half. I didn't really take any time off in the summer. I started working right after our season ended. I wanted to start this season where I finished the year and the way I played in the playoffs," Prospal said. "You play 82 games just to get to the playoffs, so it's nice to be in that situation any time (you can be), so you have to make sure you get off on the right foot and stay there."
Who's hot? – With an assist Wednesday night on Prospal's third-period goal, Lecavalier extended his point-scoring streak to seven games. Over that span, Tampa Bay's leading scorer has recorded nine points off one goal and eight assists. … Washington's Nicklas Backstrom has registered five points in his last five games. Last Wednesday night in Atlanta, Backstrom recorded his 10th multi-point game of the year by picking up two assists in a shootout loss to the Thrashers. … Florida's David Booth has 10 points in his last 10 games. In those games, the Panthers' winger has four goals and six assists, including a power-play goal and a game-winner. … Carolina's Eric Staal has seven points in his last five games off two goals and five assists. The 23-year-old center had two assists in a losing cause Tuesday night in a shootout loss to the Boston Bruins. … Atlanta's Marian Hossa has seven points (three goals, four assists) in his last five games, and eight points (four goals, four assists) in his last seven games.
Southeast Quotes – "We didn't play for the guy. He kept us in there, gave us a chance, and we got squat from main people. It's inexcusable. And that's why we sit where we sit."
-- Tampa Bay head coach John Tortorella, on Lightning goaltender Johan Holmqvist's performance in Wednesday night's overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres.
"I don't want to remember anything about this game. On nights like this, and we've had a few of these this season, we don't look like a playoff team."
-- Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen, after facing 49 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Islanders last Saturday night in New York, where the Thrashers only managed 10 shots on net.
A look ahead – On Feb. 23, the Washington Capitals are in Carolina to face the Hurricanes, the Florida Panthers travel to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers, the Atlanta Thrashers stop off in Toronto to play the Maple Leafs, and the Tampa Bay Lightning play host to the Boston Bruins. On Feb. 24, the Capitals travel home to face the New Jersey Devils and the Panthers head to New York to square off against the Rangers. On Feb. 26, the Hurricanes host the Devils, the Capitals entertain the Minnesota Wild and the Thrashers travel to Montreal to play the Canadiens.