Last night didn’t feature any Tampa Bay Lightning games but it did contain two games with teams the Lightning desperately need to lose a lot more often than they are winning. One of those teams the Bolts face tonight on the road: the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs did in fact lose last night to the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in regulation, and that’s really good for the Bolts. The Red Wings are in a slightly tougher spot to be a threat to the Lightning’s playoff hopes. Detroit needs to win the next nine games or so of its remaining 14 games to have a shot at all at the postseason. So I was totally content in cheering for the Wings (for the first and probably only time this season) to beat the Leafs, and they did not disappoint me.
Toronto remains in the No. 1 Eastern Conference wildcard spot with 80 points going into tonight’s game.
Now the other threat to the Lightning’s playoff aspirations – the Montreal Canadiens – made short work of the Colorado Avalanche last night in a 6-3 shellacking. Recent trade deadline acquisition from the New York Islanders, Thomas Vanek, recorded a hat trick in the game. The two points Montreal (83) picked up knocked the Lightning back from the number two spot in the Atlantic, a spot they had only recently acquired (after beating the Vancouver Canucks this past Monday), back to third place with 81 points.
Boston has been on a 10-game winning tear with 99 points in the Atlantic and are pretty much untouchable at this stage in the playoff race.
And that’s why tonight’s game against the Maple Leafs is so important for the Bolts to win. It’s really a battle for those two remaining guaranteed Atlantic spots. A loss (or no points) would just knock them back to the No. 1 wildcard spot (and the exchange of positions with Toronto so to speak), and Tampa Bay still has five points (as of now) over its closest Atlantic pursuer: the Washington Capitals.
But a win would put the Bolts right back at number two in the Atlantic while having a personal say in denying the Maple Leafs any points, thus keeping the Leafs that much further away from booting us out of a guaranteed top-three spot in our division, which is really the race the Lightning should be running, not settling for a wildcard spot.
The Bolts have played the Leafs twice this season: a loss, 3-2 in regulation, in Toronto, on Jan. 28 of this year and another loss on Feb. 8, at home. That one ending with a score of 4-1. The first game was close but the meeting took place during a particular downward stroke of play for the Lightning at the tail end of January. A stroke of bad play that followed Tampa Bay to the Olympic break, and even seemed to hang on for awhile after it. It was a close game, true, but if I remember it correctly, the Bolts were lucky to get out of that game with just the one-goal differential. It wasn’t one of the Lightning’s better efforts.
And of course the second game was much worse (though rectified the following game against Detroit with a 4-2 win). Tampa Bay plays Toronto one final time during the regular season on April 8 at home.
It is my opinion that the Bolts are playing far better hockey at this stage of the season than the last time these two teams met, and another feather in the Lightning’s cap is that they’ve had the benefit of two days rest. The Leafs on the other hand are playing game two of a back-to-back. Sometimes that can benefit the tired team more (as it certainly has for the Bolts this year) but both teams will need all the energy they can muster in a game, that no doubt, both teams know stands to mean a lot as the regular season barrels down the homestretch.
The Bolts need Ben Bishop to continue the stellar play of their last three games (all wins). And the Bolts need to play strong for an entire 60-minutes like they did against the New Jersey Devils on Mar. 15. A balanced mixture of intensity and urgency that the Bolts displayed against Boston on Mar. 8, and the finishing play that helped the Bolts shutout the Devils could very well get the job done in Toronto.
But I watched the Maple Leafs last night and they played a far better game than the Red Wings, but just couldn’t get the bounces to go their way and lost by a measly goal. They had all the momentum going their way towards the end of that game, scoring two goals in the third period to put themselves close, but ran out of time. If not for Daniel Alfredsson‘s put-away game-winner (coming between Toronto’s two third period goals), it very well could have gone to overtime. They looked like a team in sync, pulsing with momentum and drive, fighting to win games. The team, honestly, looks really good right now. If the Bolts were faced with that level of drive in the third period (which lets face it, they have been, and often times, it hasn’t worked out for the Bolts) then whatever lead they might have over Toronto would be in jeopardy.
The Bolts will need to equal that energy and effort if they mean to win.
Here’s to hoping that’s the Lightning team that shows up tonight in Toronto to take away two very important points from a Maple Leafs’ team that wants to take them away from us just as badly.