Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning face tough challenge against St. Louis Blues

(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The Tampa Bay Lightning finish off their three-game homestand as they take on captain Alex Pietrangelo and the St. Louis Blues.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will take on the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the St. Louis Blues, in Amalie Arena on Wednesday night. The Blues, who lead the central division, has been one of the best teams in the league since their improbable rally from the bottom of the NHL to Stanley Cup Champions last season.

This will be the second and final meeting of the season between the two cup favorites. The Blues won the first contest in 3-1 in St. Louis back on November 19.

However, a week can make a huge difference. The Lightning has been playing their best hockey of the young season. They haven’t lost since falling to the Blues, registering wins against the Chicago Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks, and Buffalo Sabres. Meanwhile, the Blues are fresh off back-to-back losses at the hands of their divisional foes, the Nashville Predators and have lost five of their last seven games.

If the Bolts want to win they will have to do so without two of their key players. Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos continues to miss time after re-aggravating a lower-body injury last Thursday. Stamkos is officially listed as day-to-day, but the Lightning has remained quiet on the state of his injury.

The Bolts will also be without defensemen Erik Cernak who was suspended for two games on Tuesday for elbowing defensemen Rasmus Dahlin in Monday night’s contest against the Buffalo Sabers.

Fans should not expect any call-ups from Syracuse in order to fill these gaps in the Lightning’s line up. It is likely Coach Jon Cooper will continue to rotate between rookie forward Carter Verhaeghe and veteran forward Cory Conacher, which he has done since the injury to Stamkos.

On defense, Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper could continue with the same line up from Monday night with the exception of dropping from 7 to 6 defensemen. In that scenario both Conacher and Verhaeghe would dress on offense. If Coach Cooper decides to stick with his 11/7 rotation, it is likely defenseman Jan Rutta, who was a healthy scratch against Buffalo on Monday, will be inserted into the lineup.

The Lightning will not be the only team missing their star players. The Blues have been playing without two of their biggest offensive threats. High scoring forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Alex Steen are both on injury reserved. Steen is expected to miss at least another week after suffering an ankle sprain during a collision with Edmonton’s Alex Chiasson on November 6th. Tarasenko will miss four more months, five in total, after having to undergo shoulder surgery on October 29th.

With Steen and Tarasenko missing, the Blues have had to rely on the two lines, one anchored by David Perron and reigning Conn Smythe winner, Ryan O’Reilly and the other anchored by Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz, for their offensive production.

However, the key for the Lightning won’t be keeping these four in check offensively. Instead, they will have to find a way to match their intensity for sixty minutes, especially on defense. The Blues are one of the better defensive teams in the NHL. They are lead by Ryan O’Reilly, who in addition to being a Conn Smythe winner, is also the reigning Selke Trophy winner. Handed out annually to the best two-way forwards in the NHL.

The Blues are sixth in the league in goals allowed per game. On average they let just 2.64 goals slide past their goaltender a game. Their starting netminder, Jordan Binnington is among tops in the league for goal against average (5th, 2.23) and save percentage (9th, .926). Just part of the reason the Bolts were only able to score one time in their first match up a week ago.

Matchup of the Game

The Lightning will need to respond to the physical challenge the St. Louis Blues present. Under the current head coach, Craig Berube the Blues have built their identity around playing an old school style of hockey. An area the Lightning have tried to improve upon this season. Most notably they have brought in heavy-hitting forwards like Pat Maroon, Gemel Smith, and Luke Witkowski.

However, only Maroon remains on the roster and physical hockey is much more than just big hits. It entails winning puck battles against the boards, fighting in front of the net and playing a relentless, fast-paced game for sixty minutes. These are all things the Lightning have struggled to do well the last few seasons and are all things the Blues do well.

The odds will be stacked against the Lightning as the Blues boast a significant size advantage. They currently field just two players under six feet tall, Jaden Schwartz (5’10”) and Nathan Walker (5’9”). The Bolts have six players, all forwards, below this threshold. Additionally, their only forward above 6’1” is Pat Maroon. The Blues have six forwards 6’2” or larger.

Tampa will also be hampered by the absence of Erik Cernak. Cernak is arguably their grittiest defensemen and premier net-front guardian. It will be up to fellow defensemen Braydon Coburn, Ryan McDonagh, and Victor Hedman to work throughout the game in order to keep the front of the net clear and win puck battles in the corners.

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Regardless of the outcome, Tampa Bay Lightning fans will be in for an entertaining match up between two cup contenders from opposite conferences.