Game 4 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers

Tonight’s match against the Florida Panthers kicks off the first home stand of the season for the Bolts and, at seven games, it’s a lengthy one. The Panthers, who have yet to play a home game, find themselves 1-2 on the season and, unlike the Lightning who are riding — albeit fortunately — a two-game win streak, trying to stop a losing streak that began with a 7-0 thumping at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on Saturday and continued, despite a much-better performance on Tuesday, with a disappointing 2-1 defeat to a team in the Flyers that has gotten off to a fairly tumultuous start of its own.

Just the other day the Lightning were sitting in the bottom of the league rankings in terms of possession metrics thanks to their performance in Chicago but a decent showing against a beleaguered Sabres squad has brought them out of the basement (5v5 rankings, 5v5 “Close” rankings) and close to respectability. We’ll see their cumulative totals and rates stabilize in time but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see a positive spike this evening as the Lightning get to feed off the energy and gain the tactical advantage, however slight it might be, of the last change that will come with making their home debut.

Despite its uneven play, the fact that, through nine periods of play, the Lightning have allowed just as many goals while on the power play as they have at even-strength (2), with the other 3 goals Tampa Bay has surrendered coming while shorthanded, is mind-boggling. Of course, this will likely correct itself, and probably sooner than later, as the Lightning, even allowing for improved play in their own end via defensive adjustments, aren’t going to be able to starve the opposition from even-strength production indefinitely.

As for the Panthers, the club has added (in Brad Boyes, Tom Gilbert, Matt Gilroy, Scott Gomez, Tim Thomas and Ryan Whitney) an inexpensive and sizable supporting cast of vet starters to a young nucleus with a lot of promise. Florida’s prized draft selection from this summer, Aleksander Barkov (2nd overall), has already scored his 1st NHL goal and has added his first helper as well and one of last year’s sensations, Jonathan Huberdeau (2011, 3rd overall), has just a single assist in three games but Lightning fans probably recall the 3-assist effort the young forward managed in last season’s finale. On the balance, it’s an unspectacular roster, though, that feels hastily assembled and, as we know, on the cheap. Like the Lightning, the Panthers have a lot riding on their goalie tandem but perhaps a bigger question mark is whether or not the team can stay, given the roster churning, middle-of-the-road in terms of driving play, let alone improve upon it this season. A step back in the possession game and mediocrity from Thomas and Markstrom would probably make for a disastrous recipe.

Hot starts to the season, as the Lightning learned last season, are just that and divert attention from the proof in the pudding giving cause for alarm. That said, if the Lightning, starting with tonight, can secure wins in most of their matches — which will be a tall order given the quality opposition (Penguins, Kings, Bruins and Blackhawks) they’ll have to face over the next two weeks — before hitting the road again, there ought to be plenty of developments to be encouraged by as it’s unlikely they’ll come out of that gauntlet with multiple wins playing the way they did against the Blackhawks last week.

SEASON SERIES
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Rosters

LIGHTNING
PANTHERS
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Team Stats

LIGHTNING
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PANTHERS
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Player Scoring

LIGHTNING
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PANTHERS
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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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