Fresh off their bye week, the Tampa Bay Lightning kick off the final third of their season on the road Saturday night against the weary Dallas Stars. For the home team, it’s the final game before their much-needed bye week.
“It’s not so much about relaxation as it is about recuperation,” said Stars rookie Devin Shore, who plans to spend the next few days in Arizona. This season’s schedule, squeezed by both the World Cup of Hockey and, ironically, the bye week itself, has been condensed to the point at which the games, planes, hotels and irregular practices all run together. It’s tough, both mentally and physically.
The break comes at a good time for the Stars. A 1-7-0 record in February has all but torpedoed any playoff possibilities, and the bitter scent of frustration permeates the dressing room. This team needs a little time away from the rink. Before they can get away, however, they have one more game to play.
The Lightning are well-rested following a six-day break. Center Tyler Johnson, who missed the two games prior to the break with a lower-body injury, used the time off to heal and will play in Dallas tonight. He’s a welcome addition to a team still missing superstar Steven Stamkos and heart-and-soul winger Ryan Callahan.
Unlike their opponent, the door hasn’t quite closed on the Lightning’s playoff hopes. Going into tonight’s game, the Bolts sit six points out of the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. While a six-point gap can be overcome, the greater concern may be the five teams standing between the Lightning and that Wild Card spot. With 26 games remaining in their season, every point counts. Tonight’s contest is very winnable, and the Lightning need to win.
To earn two points against the Stars, though, the Lightning will have to buck an ugly trend: Teams are 3-9-2 in the first game following a bye week this season, and many of those losses haven’t been close. The Bolts must find their stride quickly Saturday night and remain focused for the full 60 minutes.
The Stars, on the other hand, need to maintain focus on the task at hand and avoid looking ahead to their much-needed break. For them, tonight’s contest is all about pride.
Tampa Bay Lightning at Dallas Stars
American Airlines Center – 7:00 pm CST
Broadcast channels – FS-SW, SUN
2016-17 Season Series: First Meeting of the Season
Tampa Bay Lightning: 25-24-7 – 57 Points
Road Record: 11-14-5
Hot Players: Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin and Brayden Point
Key Injuries: Jonathan Drouin, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan
Brian Boyle – Valtteri Filppula – Cory Conacher
Alex Killorn – Tyler Johnson – Brayden Point
Ondrej Palat – Vladislav Namestnikov – Nikita Kucherov
J.T. Brown – Cedric Paquette – Gabriel Dumont
Victor Hedman – Jake Dotchin
Braydon Coburn – Anton Stralman
Jason Garrison – Andrej Sustr
Dallas Stars: 22-27-10 – 54 Points
Home Record: 15-9-6
Hot Players: Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin
Key Injuries: Stephen Johns, Johnny Oduya, Mattias Janmark and Ales Hemsky
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Patrick Eaves
Devin Shore – Jason Spezza – Tyler Seguin
Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Patrick Sharp
Curtis McKenzie – Adam Cracknell – Brett Ritchie
Esa Lindell – John Klingberg
Dan Hamhuis – Jordie Benn
Patrik Nemeth – Jamie Oleksiak
1) Kari Lehtonen and Andrei Vasilevskiy were the first goalies off the ice at the morning skate, so expect those two to start. Ben Bishop will likely get the nod for Tampa Sunday evening against Colorado.
2) Stars defenseman Stephen Johns has the flu and will miss his second consecutive game, so the projected defense pairs above are probably accurate. The Stars didn’t go through line rushes this morning, however, so the forward trios are anybody’s guess. With the exception of Patrick Eaves, all forwards skated. Jiri Hudler skated late and looks like a healthy scratch. If Eaves plays, though, another forward will watch from the press box. The guess here is Lauri Korpikoski, but it’s just a guess.
3) Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin is also ill and will be a game-time decision. The team recalled Cory Conacher from their AHL farm club, and he’s expected to go if Drouin can’t.
4) Tonight will see Dave Strader, play-by-play voice of the Stars, working for the first time this season. Strader has been sidelined while battling cancer. The fight continues, but he feels up to working. That’s a good sign.
5) Curtis McKenzie and Adam Cracknell are heading to Arizona with Shore next week for strategic golfing purposes. Patrick Sharp and his family are heading to their home in Connecticut. While the players scatter to the four winds, assistant equipment manager Dennis Soetaert is just looking forward to spending a few days at home resting up for March, when the Stars play 10 road games, including stops in Florida, Vancouver, Boston and San Jose. Wins or losses aside, it’s going to be a long month.