SUNRISE (CBSMiami/SportsDirect) – Coming into the season, the two Florida hockey teams were expected to be top contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Needless to say, things haven’t quite turned out that way.
The Tampa Bay Lightning attempt to win back-to-back games for only the second time since Thanksgiving when they visit the Sunshine State rival Florida Panthers on Thursday night.
The Lightning followed up one of their worst losses of the season Saturday in Arizona with one of their most inspiring triumphs Tuesday, when they rallied for four third-period goals to beat Chicago 5-2.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper called it “desperation mode” as the Lightning try to remain in the fight for a playoff berth in the crowded Eastern Conference race.
“We know what we can do, it’s just a matter of doing it,” Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson told reporters after scoring twice Tuesday. “And it started (Tuesday).”
The Panthers are one point ahead of the Lightning as both prepare to play their 50th game of the season and stand 9-9-9 since Tom Rowe took over for Gerard Gallant as coach.
Florida went winless on a four-game road trip (0-2-2) where it managed eight goals total, and comes home where it is 11-9-3 – including a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay on Nov. 7.
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET, FSN Sun (Tampa Bay), FSN Florida
ABOUT THE LIGHTNING (22-22-5): Andrei Vasilevskiy came up big with 34 saves Tuesday and turned aside 90 of the 96 shots he faced over his last four appearances.
“Sometimes you need your goaltender to be your best player,” Cooper told reporters. “And he was (Tuesday).”
Right wing Nikita Kucherov snapped a five-game drought with a goal Tuesday and leads the team with 18 to go along with 43 points while center Valtteri Filppula notched a pair of assists to push his total to eight points in the last eight games and has 32 on the season – third on the team.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (20-19-10): Goalie James Reimer is expected to return to back up Roberto Luongo after missing time to be with his wife for the birth of their child and two other regulars are expected back from injuries.
Center Nick Bjugstad – out since Jan. 6 with a lower-body injury – should be back in the lineup along with defenseman Alex Petrovic, who missed more than two months with an ankle injury.
Vincent Trocheck notched his seventh goal in eight games Monday in the 3-2 overtime loss to Arizona and leads the team with 18 tallies to go along with 33 points.
- Florida’s 44-year-old RW Jaromir Jagr is third on the team with 29 points and remains three shy of 1,900 for his career.
- Tampa Bay’s veteran D Jason Garrison is day-to-day after missing the last two games with an illness.
- The Panthers are 5-1-1 in the last seven meetings with the Lightning, going 1-0-1 this season.
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