Game 35 Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs Nashville Predators

With two goals in the final three minutes of regulation — one of those in the final seconds of regulation — the Tampa Bay Lightning (20-11-3, 43 PTS) managed to force the extra session before completing its stunning comeback against the Islanders in the shootout the other day. It wasn’t the first time the Bolts snatched victory from the jaws of defeat this season — the improbable comeback against Chicago in the first slate of games being the most memorable instance — but the Great Coliseum Miracle of 2013 felt particularly dirty, a sensation the glorious successive displays of puck wizardry by Valterri Filppula and Nikita Kucherov in the skills competition couldn’t completely wash away.

Tonight’s opponent is the Nashville Predators (16-15-3, 35 PTS), which also last played on Tuesday in what was a spirited but fruitless tilt against the mighty Blackhawks. The loss kept the Preds in contention with the Jets for the Central’s cellar, ten points out of the final guaranteed playoff spot for its division and the Western Conference’s second and last wild card position.

The Lightning will be facing a team that has long depended on stout defense as the main driver of its success. With the minute-eating rearguard tandem of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber as well as Finnish netminder Pekka Rinne as the bedrock, the Predators had a string of three consecutive postseason appearances. Things haven’t been the same for Nashville since Suter became part of the Wild’s big haul in the summer of 2012: the playoffs streak was snapped earlier this year as an offense that once got a lot of mileage out of a lineup absent high-end scoring forwards withered and the defense slid, longtime winger Martin Erat decided he wanted out and general manager David Poile, to his credit, found a taker and landed skilled forward prospect Filip Forsberg in return.

Unlike the Lightning’s own struggles to score, that Nashville’s offensive production has continued to lag is far from shocking as an unprecedented free-agency spending spree netted the club four role players (Matt Cullen, Matt Hendricks, Eric Nystrom and Viktor Stalberg) up front to a roster that remains devoid of any premier scoring forwards. 34 year-old David Legwand (6 goals, 19 assists), as usual, is helping lead the way and there’s a lot of balance in terms of who’s contributing but the lack of offensive punch is a severe hindrance to the aspirations of a club trying to stay afloat in a deep division within the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Of course, having to rely on Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec to tend to the crease — with Rinne still battling an injury — isn’t helping matters, either.

Tampa Bay, though still eagerly anticipating the eventual return of rehabbing Steven Stamkos, is getting a significant boost to the defensive corps as Victor Hedman will be back in the lineup after missing six games. Also, Matt Taormina — reassigned, along with forward Dana Tyrell, to AHL Syracuse yesterday — has given way to organizational vet J.P. Cote, who’s making his long-awaited return to the NHL for the first time since the 2005-2006 season (see the write-up on Cote from our sister site, Bolt Prospects) after signing a two-year, two-way deal. Anders Lindback, who has received extremely meager goal support (Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Devils serves as the latest keen example) to this point, will be the starting netminder for the Bolts.

It’s tempting to think that there’s a lot going for Tampa Bay heading into this match. The team has shown a tendency to follow poor showings with decent efforts, it’s playing host at the Times Forum where it has been, at 12-3-1, varied between sharp and dominant most nights and the matchup itself seems favorable and you’d like to think that the opportunity to extend or maintain the gap between itself of the pack of clubs trailing in the standings isn’t lost on the Bolts. Then again, as the Islanders game showed, there really isn’t a gimme win in this league.


Season Series

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Special Teams

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Team stats cited from Extra Skater.

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