Game 13 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning @ Carolina Hurricanes

Tonight the Tampa Bay Lightning (8-4-0, 16 PTS) breeze into Raleigh to take on the Carolina Hurricanes (4-5-3, 11 PTS), who have a tenuous lead over the handful of teams clustered and jockeying for position in the Metropolitan Division.

The Bolts have had a few days to recuperate and prepare for the Hurricanes after a grueling stretch that saw the club play four games in six nights and, its energy level tailing off by the third match (for which it needed the shootout to squeak past the Panthers), which culminated in a lethargic, losing effort against the Devils on Tuesday. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, should be very fresh after having played just once since the tail-end of a back-to-back heading into this past weekend. The host squad has lost its last three matches, albeit to some stiff competition: it came up short against the Penguins, was run roughshod by the upstart Avalanche until score effects kicked in and got burned by a flat start against the Wild.

The two teams last played each other in late April with the conclusion of the lockout-abbreviated 2012-2013 regular season rapidly approaching. With both being well out of playoff contention, the only thing really at stake was a closer seat to the pole position at the draft, which the Lightning ultimately ended up with, helped in this pursuit by Carolina taking that night’s contest after building a 3-0 lead in the first period and holding on to deny Tampa Bay a frantic comeback attempt.

Fast forward a few months and both clubs are swimming against a different current, no longer divisional rivals after league realignment. Tampa Bay seems, at present, to have the more difficult path ahead in terms of keeping pace with divisional opponents in order to qualify for the playoffs while Carolina has had the injury bug to contend with in the early going: a broken heel in late Spring ended Joni Pitkanen’s 2013-2014 campaign before it began and both of the club’s top goaltenders — longtime starter, Cam Ward, and Anton Khudobin, signed in the off-season free-agent to serve as the backup — are still nursing injuries and out for tonight’s match. Jeff Skinner, Carolina’s 2010 1st-rounder and current leading scorer, is also expected miss the weekend, as is depth forward Kevin Westgarth while vet NHL forward Radek Dvorak and young blueliner Brett Bellemore could return to the lineup.

What else ails the Hurricanes? Corey Sznajder, who covers the team at his Shutdown Line blog, points to slow starts, not merely in terms of falling behind, but the overall body of work in the opening frame as the primary culprit:

If you thought the Canes -6 goal differential in the first period was bad then you might want to advert your eyes, because their microstats are much worse.

In short, Sznajder goes on to demonstrate how Carolina, which has scored two or fewer goals in five of its last ten matches, has regularly had the ice tilted to its half of the ice and, consequently, has been severely outchanced in the first period of action, something he notes is a reversal of the criticism last season’s Hurricanes squad, which faded after initially carrying play and establishing leads, bore.

On the balance, the Lightning have been marginally better at generating shot attempts than the Hurricanes have during 5v5 play when the score is “Close and has posted a +2 (12 for, 10 allowed) goal differential in this game state whereas Carolina is -8 (9 for, 17 allowed). There’s something to be said for the Lightning helping their cause as the club has one of the best shot attempts against rates while Carolina is one near the league-bottom. That said, Tampa Bay, as an apparent trade-off, is well off the mark in terms of generating attempts rate-wise, an area Carolina is close to middling.

Another note on the state of Carolina’s offense: the diminutive Nathan Gerbe, signed to a one-year deal on the cheap, leads the team with four goals. For a team that boasts the Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, Eric and Jordan Staal and Jiri Tlusty, that’s a glaring shortcoming.

You can’t discount, though, the substantial bit of luck — driven by the fluctuations of shooting and save percentages for and against — Tampa Bay enjoyed in the first handful of games, a trend that faded in recent games, not altogether unexpectedly. Carolina, on the other hand, has been nowhere near as fortunate in the early stages of this season and you can’t help but feel for Ward who, in seeing the most time in net, has delivered as solid, if unspectacular, a save percentage that Khudobin has while dealing with a drop-off in terms of the shooting by the skaters in front of him.

With a showdown against yet another Western Conference heavyweight, the St. Louis Blues, on the docket to make the bookend of this weekend’s back-to-back set, it’s tempting to think a team that will have to rely on a goalie tandem of Justin Peters and Mike Murphy while trying to right their ship, especially one as additionally banged-up as the Hurricanes are, as particularly vulnerable.


Season Series

TIED 0-0
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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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