In what could be a preview of the first-ever playoff matchup between the two clubs, the red-hot Florida Panthers will look to extend their winning streak to a season-long seven games when they visit the cross-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
"This is one of the hottest teams in the league coming in right now," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said after Tuesday's morning skate. "I think since the all-star break they've been one of the best [teams].
Entering Tuesday's slate of games, Florida trails Columbus by one point for the second wild card spot and New Jersey by four points for the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers also hold three games in hand on each club they are chasing.
"I don't know if you can really pinpoint on specific thing that's been reason," Panthers center Vincent Trocheck said when asked about the team's miraculous run. "I think it's a matter of us coming together as a team, realizing what's on the line, sticking to our structure a little bit more and then, obviously, turning it up a notch."
The Panthers have scored three-or-more goals in each of their last six games, with Aleksander Barkov, who was named the NHL's third star of the week on Monday, leading the team with 10 points (5-5-10) during that span. Barkov's linemate, Evgenii Dadonov, scored five goals during the homestand, including his career-first NHL hat trick on Feb. 24 against Pittsburgh.
"He's a slippery little player that just finds seams, finds holes," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Dadonov. "Like the other night against Philly, he kind of hemmed in their zone and the next thing you know he's on the breakaway and it's in the net."
Roberto Luongo will start for the Panthers after stopping 39 of 40 shots in a 4-1 win over the Flyers on Sunday. The 38-year-old goaltender has been spectacular since returning from a groin injury that kept him out of the lineup for almost 11 weeks, posting a 6-1-0 record with a 2.27 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage.
Florida has allowed just six goals over its last four games.
"They have a lot of really good forwards that can make plays and a lot of them that can bury the puck, too," Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson said of Tampa Bay's attack. "We really have to be aware of that and take their time and space away. That seems like that's always what we're saying, but that's what works. When top players don't have a lot of time to make the plays they want to make, that's when they get frustrated."
The Lightning (45-17-4) certainly have no shortage of top players.
Led by Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, the team boasts six players that have scored at least 18 goals and three players with at least 26 goals. Kucherov leads the NHL with 85 points (33-52-85), while Stamkos is tied for fifth with 77 (27-50-77).
"You have to be aware of who you're out there against," Trocheck said. "You have to make sure you know when you're out there against Stamkos and Kucherov, taking it a little bit more cautiously when you're out there with them."
Tampa Bay leads the season series after going 2-1-0 against the Panthers in October. But with so much time having passed between their last meeting, players and coaches from both teams agree that those early-season matchups won't factor into Tuesday night's result.
"It was a short trip over here," Matheson said. "It's always fun being a part of the battle of Florida."
- The Panthers have gone 13-for-45 (28.9 percent) with the man advantage of their last 13 games. Since Feb. 5, Florida's power play unit ranks second in the NHL. Vincent Trocheck leads the club with a career-high 11 powerplay goals and 20 power-play points.
- Aleksander Barkov was named the NHL's third star of the week on Monday after leading the league with five goals in four games. Barkov enters tonight's game on a career-high (tied) four-game goal streak and a season-high six-game point streak (5-5-10). The 22-year-old center currently paces the Panthers in points goals (25), assists (39) and points (64).
- Aaron Ekblad has posted 12 points (4-8-12) over his last 14 games and owns a four-game point streak (1-3-4) entering tonight's contest. His 13 goals on the season rank him third in the NHL among all defensemen and first in the Eastern Conference.
- Mike Matheson has scored eight of his career-high nine goals this season on the road, tying him for the most road goals scored among the NHL's defensemen this season. The 24-year-old also ranks fifth among NHL blueliners in takeaways (51).
- Florida has won five of its last seven road games (5-2-0).
Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Jamie McGinn
Maxim Mamin - Jared McCann - Connor Brickley
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
MacKenzie Weegar - Alex Petrovic
Scratches: Ian McCoshen, Radim Vrbata, Denis Malgin
Injured Reserve: Frank Vatrano (lower-body)
- Feb. 14: G Roberto Luongo activated from IR
- Feb. 14: G Harri Sateri loaned to Springfield (AHL)
HOW TO WATCH
When: Tuesday, March 6, 7:30 p.m. ET
Where: Amalie Arena - Tampa, FL
TV coverage: FOX Sports Florida (check local listings)
Florida Panthers Radio Network Presented by HARD Lifestyle Beverages: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys)
Where to stream it: FOX Sports GO and NHL.TV (outside of the state of Florida)