One Star Down, One Arrives
The Lightning (20-25-3 O/U, 10-16-0 O/U on road at sportsbooks) really have no right contending for the Atlantic Division title this season. Not because of talent so much as because the most exciting offensive player in the NHL not named Sidney Crosby, center Steven Stamkos, hasn't played since Nov. 11 after fracturing his right tibia in a loss to Boston. Stamkos, who won the goals title in the 2011-12 season and was second in last year's lockout-shortened campaign, was off to a terrific start with 14 goals and nine assists (plus-11) in 17 games before that horrific injury. The Bolts have gone 16-11-5 without their star entering Saturday's home matchup against San Jose.
Stamkos absolutely wants to play for Team Canada in the Sochi Olympic but only will if he's 100 percent. He believes he must play at least two games for Tampa Bay before heading to Russia. That would mean he must play by Feb. 6. Stamkos did skate with the Lightning on Thursday but he's still in a non-contact jersey and thus won't play Sunday.
Tampa Bay was third in the NHL in scoring last season thanks largely to Stamkos and Martin St. Louis but has dropped to No. 12 this season (2.75 per game) without its top sniper. St. Louis is having another great season, though, leading the team with 21 goals and 24 assists.
The Lightning were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL last year in allowing 3.06 goals per game, but they have found a salvation in net in Ben Bishop, who was acquired in early April last year for Cory Conacher and a fourth-round 2013 draft pick in what has turned out as a total heist for the Lightning. The 6-foot-7 Bishop is a Vezina Trophy candidate, leading the NHL in save percentage (.938) and No. 2 in goals-against average. Bishop hasn't allowed more than two goals in his past 11 games.
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Not Many Positives For Canes
Carolina (19-22-5 O/U on sportsbooks, 8-13-3 at home) entered the season expecting to have one of the best goalies in the league in Cam Ward, but the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner hasn't played since New Year's Eve due to a lower body injury. He wasn't good when in net with a 6-7-5 record, 3.14 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. He could be back soon, although it's not expected to be this weekend. The team would like to trade Ward but won't find any takers at a salary-cap hit of $6.3 million through the 2015-16 season. The Hurricanes have gone with Anton Khudobin in Ward's spot and the Russian has been solid, going 6-2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .935 save percentage entering Saturday's home game against Florida. Justin Peters has been backing him up.
The Hurricanes are not a good offensive team, ranking 23rd in goals at 2.4 per game. The entered Saturday's game having been blanked in back-to-back contests after winning five straight. To boost that offense, coach Kirk Muller made a line change during Monday's loss to Calgary, elevating Jiri Tlusty to the first line with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin. Those three played well together last year when Tlusty had 23 goals and 15 assists in the 48 regular-season games. He has just six goals and four assists this year. Jeff Skinner will remain with Staal and Semin on the No. 1 power-play line and Skinner leads the team with 21 goals, including nine with the man advantage, which is among the NHL leaders.
Considering the Hurricanes have almost no shot of playing postseason hockey this will be the third and final meeting of the season. On Nov. 1 in Raleigh, the Lightning won 3-0 as -127 favorites with a total of 5.5. That was Bishop's first shutout of the year. St. Louis had two assists and Stamkos a goal. Peters was in net for Carolina. On Dec. 21 in Tampa, the Lightning won 3-2 in overtime as -148 favorites with a total of 5 on NHL odds. Again it was Peters in net for Carolina and he was pretty terrific with 47 saves despite the loss. He was the game's No. 1 star. Tlusty had both Hurricanes goals. Radko Gudas scored 2:16 into overtime for the winner on a 3-on-1 rush. Bishop made 25 saves.
Free NHL pick: We'll take Tampa Bay +105 and the under for our NHL picks in this match-up, which has hit in four the past five meetings. Tampa has won five straight in Carolina and six of the past seven overall in this rivalry.