The Tampa Bay Lightning are second in the Atlantic Division and only two points back of the first-place Boston Bruins. They’ve won three straight games and have continued to play at a high level despite the loss of Steven Stamkos back on November 11.
The Lightning take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre tonight, the first meeting between the two teams this season. Martin St. Louis is the heart and soul of this team, and continues to pile up points with 52 in as many games as a 38-year-old.
Valtteri Filppula might have the hardest name to spell in the NHL, but he’s also had a bit of a resurgence filling in for Stamkos. After signing a big five-year, $25-million contract in the offseason, the 29-year-old Finn is scoring at the second-highest pace of his career.
Tyler Johnson, a 22-year-old centre, is breaking out in a big way in his first full NHL season. Johnson has 34 points in 52 games. Interestingly, Johnson has one more point in two more games than Toronto’s resident 22-year-old centre, Nazem Kadri. That should put his so-called “struggles” in perspective.
The Lightning defense corps is led by Victor Hedman, who is 10th in league scoring among defensemen with 32 points. Surprisingly, Hedman was left off Sweden’s Olympic team. The defense also includes steady veterans Sami Salo, Matt Carle and Eric Brewer.
One name from the Lightning blue-line that you may have not heard of is Mark Barberio. The 23-year-old, like Johnson, is in his first full season as a member of the Lightning, and is thriving. As Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times writes, Barberio has really found his groove lately, mainly contributing offensively.
Cam Charron of The LeafsNation adds that the biggest reason for the Lightning’s success is their goaltender Ben Bishop. Bishop leads all NHL starters with a .934 save percentage in 38 games, yet for some reason wasn’t deemed good enough to make Team USA’s Olympic roster.
Charron includes a few other key statistics in his preview, including even-strength goals-for per 60 minutes. The Lightning rank eighth in the league in that statistic, while the Leafs rank 18th. In even-strength goals-against per 60, the difference is even larger with the Lightning ranked fourth and the Leafs 22nd.
The Leafs, however, are a much better power-play team than the Lightning. If the Lightning fall into penalty trouble, the Leafs have the ability to make them pay in a hurry.
For full lineup and viewing information, as well as some notes on the game, check out Jeff L.’s preview. Surprisingly, the Leafs are actually favoured to win tonight according to Vegas Insider. If you were wondering, Steve Burtch’s prediction model gave the Leafs a 43.9 per cent chance of winning this game.
Can the Leafs prove they belong with the proverbial big boys of the Eastern Conference and knock off the surging Lightning tonight? Or are they bound for another setback against a hot team? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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My prediction: The Lightning win 3-2 in a shootout and the Leafs get another loser point. Woohoo!
GO LEAFS GO!!!