PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 24: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins moves the puck in front of Marc-Andre Bergeron #47 of the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 24, 2013 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 4-2. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tampa Bay Lightning Face Test Ahead

TAMPA, FL – FEBRUARY 21: Steven Stamkos #91 of the Tampa Bay Lightning moves the puck down ice ahead of Milan Lucic #17 of the Boston Bruins during the game at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on February 21, 2013 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

After a tough weekend for the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team will face a set of tough opponents entering the month of March. In this shortened season, the Lightning have seen both hot streaks and cold streaks. After starting the season at 6-1-0, the Lightning have totaled an unimpressive 3-7-1 record. Of course, with the Southeast division underachieving as a whole, the Lightning have managed a tie with the Carolina Hurricanes for the division lead despite a massive cool off from the hot start. The division lead may end up being the only ticket into the playoffs, as the Lightning are listed second in the division (tied with Hurricanes with points but also playing one more game than the Hurricanes) but sit at 8th in the conference, tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot at 19 points. It seems as though the other two divisions will not be cooling off any time soon, so it may be possible that the only way into to the playoffs out of the Southeast division is to win the division. As shown by the Los Angeles Kings a season ago, just making the playoffs is important (obviously), and this next set of games for the Lightning could be key going forward.

The Lightning schedule has them playing the Buffalo Sabres at home Tuesday night (2/26), before going on the road to play the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the New Jersey Devils. The game against the Sabres should result in a win for the Lightning. The Sabres are at the bottom of the Conference with a 6-12-1 record. This is a little strange for a team with players like Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and Ryan Miller on the roster every night, along with a good supporting cast around them. However, the Sabres have not been able to piece it together and are riding a 4 game losing streak. The Sabres last played on Saturday (2/23) against the New York Islanders, and lost 4-0. The test does not start against this team for the Lightning.

OTTAWA, CANADA – FEBRUARY 21: Ryan Callahan #24 of the New York Rangers celebrates his third period goal with team mates Chris Kreider #20, Stu Bickel #41 and J.T. Miller #47, during an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators, at Scotiabank Place on February 21, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers will host the Lightning on Thursday (2/28) and, while not boasting an impressive record, always give the Lightning issues. The Rangers have gotten the best of the Lightning in two meetings thus far, beating them 3-2 in Tampa and then 5-1 in New York. Most people are still hanging on to the fact that the Rangers will eventually come to form and make a run for the best team in the Eastern Conference, and with all of the weapons they have on the roster it definitely remains possible. As of today, the Rangers have an 8-7-2 record. The Rangers lost Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens by a 3-0 score and will play against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday before facing the Lightning.

The Lightning will then have two days off before facing the Boston Bruins next Saturday (3/2). The Bruins have remained consistent, holding a 11-2-2 record so far this season. The Bruins recently faced the Lightning (Thursday 2/21) and won by a score of 4-2. The biggest reason for the Bruins’ success this season is likely in the hands of goaltender Tuukka Rask. Once a backup for former Bruin Tim Thomas, Rask has a 9-1-2 record with a goals against average of 1.97 and a save percentage at 92.5%. The Bruins last played Sunday (2/24) against the Florida Panthers, winning 4-1. The Bruins will play Islanders on Tuesday and then the Ottawa Senators on Thursday before the game against the Lightning on Saturday.

After playing in Boston Saturday, the Lightning will once again play the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday (3/4). The Penguins, as we all saw Sunday night, have all sorts of weapons offensively and a goalie in Marc-Andre Fleury that is nearly unbeatable when focused. The Penguins do have problems when facing adversity however, especially when it involves physicality. It will be key for the Lightning to play the Penguins physically. When these two teams meet a week from now, both will be playing on one day of rest, as both teams play Saturday (Penguins play the Canadiens in Montreal) before playing each other on Monday. Pittsburgh currently has a record of 13-6-0. Note: Center Evgeni Malkin has just recently been diagnosed with a concussion. It may be highly likely that he does not play against the Lightning. Story here…

The last game of this road trip will be played in New Jersey. The only meeting between the Devils and Lightning went in favor of the Devils. It is not out of question to say that some questionable calls by the refs helped New Jersey blow the game open in the third period in what was a close game until the whistles began blowing. Everyone knows about Martin Brodeur, the Ageless Wonder. His 8-2-3 record has helped lead New Jersey to a 10-5-4 record. Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk have played up to par, holding 22 and 17 points respectively.

If the Lightning want to make a run in the playoffs, the first order of business is to get in. Once a team is in the playoffs, anything can happen. Tough road trips like this be a great assessment of prepared the team is to make a playoff run. These next few games for the Lightning may prove to lead to the downfall or the uprising of the Lightning this season.

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Tags: Boston Bruins Buffalo Sabres Evgeni Malkin New Jersey Devils New York Rangers Pittsburgh Penguins Tampa Bay Lightning

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