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Surging Lightning host struggling Bruins

by David Kalan

BRUINS (25-22-11) at LIGHTNING (26-21-11)

Last 10 -- Boston 2-5-3; TampaBay 7-2-1.

Season series -- The teams have split two meetings this season, with each winning at home. TampaBay took the most recent matchup, winning 2-1 at St. Pete Times Forum on Dec. 28.

Big story -- Until recently the Bruins and Bolts were headed in opposite directions, but the B's have slowed down their recent tumble in the standings with two straight wins. As they look for a third, they'll face a stiff challenge against TampaBay, which is currently among the hottest teams in the League.

Team Scope:

Bruins -- After enduring one of the worst stretches in franchise history recently, the East's top seed a year ago is scrambling to stay in the playoff picture. The Bruins have won two straight since losing 10 in a row, but the resultant tumble in the standings has put a dent in Boston's postseason chances. The B's have fallen to fourth in the Northeast and out of the top eight, but a win over the Lightning would bring them back into playoff position in the logjammed Eastern Conference.

Knocking off the streaking Bolts is easier said than done, but if anyone can cool off TampaBay's potent offense it might be goaltender Tuukka Rask, who appears to have taken the starting job from U.S. Olympian Tim Thomas and is among the League leaders with a 2.01 goals-against average. If Rask continues his solid play, he may give a struggling offense time to pull itself together. Boston has scored more than two goals just once in the last 11 games.

Lightning -- Tampa Bay spent much of this season treading water in the East, but the Lightning have won four in a row, the franchise's longest winning streak in more than two years, and have won seven of their last nine. The once-middling Bolts are suddenly in the East playoff picture and with Boston on their tails, Thursday night is a valuable opportunity for Tampa Bay to get a leg up in the race for its first playoff berth since 2007.

Antero Niittymaki has been a revelation for the Lightning. The goaltender's best days between the pipes before this season were likely when he backstopped Finland to a surprising silver medal-finish at the 2006 Winter Olympics, but lately he has made a case for usurping the starting job in Tampa Bay. Niittymaki is 7-0-1 with a 1.09 GAA in his last eight starts. Tampa Bay has also gotten support on the offensive end from Steven Stamkos, who leads the team with 33 goals, and Martin St. Louis, who has picked up 11 of his team-leading 66 points during his current seven-game scoring streak.

Who's hot -- After being selected with the top pick a season ago, Stamkos was expected to be a top tier scorer, but no one expected it to happen this quickly. The center is likely to hit 40 goals in his sophomore campaign and has an outside shot at 50. He has been particularly potent during his current career-high 10-game point streak, tallying 8 goals and 8 assists in that stretch. In Boston, Zdeno Chara and Marco Sturm have combined for six points in the last three games.

Injury report -- Boston's David Krejci played Tuesday against the Sabres despite a nagging right leg injury and should be in the lineup once again. Johnny Boychuk, however, is out indefinitely with a broken orbital bone, while Mark Stuart is expected to miss three more weeks after surgery on his left pinky. TampaBay should be healthy for Thursday.

Stat pack -- The weather may prevent a lot of hockey outdoors in Florida, but inside the St. Pete Times Forum, the Bolts are raising hockey to an art form. Tampa Bay has just one regulation loss on home ice since Dec. 23. Niittymaki has been equally as strong at the Forum, going 10-3-3 with a 1.75 GAA there this season.

Puck drop -- With the Olympic break looking, Boston and Tampa Bay both need the points. If the Bolts can keep their run going, they may see late April for the first time in three years. If Boston is unable to continue rebounding after its losing streak, a once-promising season may start to unravel.

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