LIGHTNING (27-15-5) at THRASHERS (23-18-7)
TV: SUN (HD), FS-S (HD)
Tampa Bay 6-4-0; Atlanta 4-5-1.
This is the fifth of six meetings this season between the Southeast Division rivals. The Lightning have won each of the previous four matchups between the teams, who will wrap up their season series on Sunday.
Both teams are struggling to gain traction in a division that could be up for grabs. Last season, the Washington Capitals beat second-place Atlanta by an astounding 38 points to win their third straight Southeast Division crown. But so far this season, only nine points separate the first-place Lightning from the fourth-place Hurricanes. For Tampa Bay, a 5-4-0 record in the new year has been good enough to retain a one-point lead over the Caps for the division lead.
After enjoying a scorching November, Atlanta has failed to keep pace with the rest of the division, going 1-3-1 in their last five games. Their only win in that span came in a shootout against Florida on Monday, a come-from-behind victory that saw the Thrashers score two late third-period goals in 34 seconds to force overtime.
"We knew we had the team to come back in these types of situations and we just stick with it and we finally got a break at the end," forward Bryan Little said. "Once we got that one goal, we thought we'd get another one."
The acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson
on New Year's Day was intended to give Tampa Bay the final piece necessary to start its playoff push. While Roloson's 4-3-0 record with the Lightning isn't striking, two of his wins have been shutout victories over the Capitals, allowing the Lightning to maintain their slim division lead.
Roloson helped the Lightning again on Tuesday, making 28 saves against Columbus before turning in a flawless shootout performance in a 3-2 win that saw Steven Stamkos
score twice before Ryan Malone
potted the shootout winner. The win was the 200th of Roloson's career and the 900th career game for teammate Vincent Lecavalier
, the most in Lightning history.
Since closing out November with six straight wins, Atlanta has been unable to continue the winning pace that had made it one of the pleasant surprises of the 2010-11 campaign. The team has gone 10-9-4 since the winning streak, dropping from sixth to eighth place in the Eastern Conference, just three points ahead of division rival Carolina, who enjoy two games in hand.
The late-game heroics against the Panthers gave the Thrashers hope that they could re-enter the division race over a stretch that sees them play five of their next six games at home.
"That's a dramatic one to pull out," coach Craig Ramsay said on Monday. "We don't quit. Very seldom do the boys give up."
After going goalless in his first six games of 2011, Steven Stamkos
has scored 4 goals in his current three-game point streak and retaken the League’s goal-scoring lead over the injured Sidney Crosby. … After registering a goal and an assist in the comeback win in Florida, Little has 5 points in his last five games.
With the exception of goaltender Mike Smith, who is out with a knee injury, Tampa Bay has a healthy roster. … For Atlanta, forward Freddy Modin is out with a lower-body injury while goaltender Chris Mason (knee) and forward Jim Slater (concussion) are on IR.
With one more goal, Little will pass Marc Savard for fifth on the Thrashers' all-time goal-scoring list. That feat would put him in the company of some accomplished scorers, including Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa.
Despite the losing record against Tampa Bay in his first season as Thrashers coach, Ramsay is very familiar with the Lightning organization. He was an associate coach with the team from 2001-07, winning a Stanley Cup with the Lightning in 2004.