Lightning-Hurricanes Preview

The Southeast Division hasn’t been much of a contest the last
two seasons, but it’s looking far more competitive around the
midpoint of 2010-11.

Big improvements from the Carolina Hurricanes and the Tampa Bay
Lightning are two major reasons.

While the Lightning look to strengthen their hold on first
place, the Hurricanes hope to continue their surge and avenge last
month’s lopsided loss Saturday night in Raleigh.

Washington won the Southeast by a comfortable margin each of the
last two seasons, while both Tampa Bay and Carolina finished with
80 points – 41 behind the Capitals – in 2009-10.

But the Lightning (26-14-5) currently hold a two-point lead atop
the division thanks in large part to a pair of shutout victories
over Washington this month, while Carolina (21-16-6) is also
challenging for a postseason berth after a 6-1-2 stretch in its
last nine games.

On Jan. 15 last season, Tampa Bay was 18-18-10 while the
Hurricanes were 14-25-7.

The Lightning are still searching for more consistency after
alternating wins and losses in their last six. They failed to build
on Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over the Capitals, losing 5-2 to lowly
New Jersey on Friday night – allowing the Devils to snap an 11-game
road losing streak.

While newcomer Dwayne Roloson has two shutouts in five starts
since joining Tampa Bay in a trade from the New York Islanders,
he’s also been pulled twice, as he was Friday after allowing four
goals on nine first-period shots.

“It certainly can’t start like that (Saturday),” said coach Guy
Boucher, who didn’t sound particularly optimistic about facing the
Hurricanes.

“I’ll be honest, Carolina’s red-hot right now in the league,
they didn’t play (Friday), and I pushed some of our guys,” Boucher
said. “We left quite a bit of energy there in these last two
periods trying to come back.”

Dan Ellis replaced Roloson, stopping 15 of 16 shots, and may get
the start Saturday. Ellis is 2-0-0 with 1.51 goals-against average
in two career starts against Carolina.

The Lightning have won their last five intradivision games,
including a 5-1 home victory over Carolina on Dec. 20.

Martin St. Louis had a goal and two assists in that contest,
which Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward missed with a mild infection. Ward
is 9-3-0 with 1.98 GAA in his last 12 starts against the
Lightning.

A prolific offense has carried Carolina lately, with rookie Jeff
Skinner contributing seven goals and Tuomo Ruutu adding 13 points
in the last nine games. The Hurricanes have at least four goals in
each of their six victories during that stretch.

Ruutu and Skinner each scored in Thursday’s 3-2 loss at Buffalo,
and coach Paul Maurice is hopeful that Carolina’s first regulation
defeat since Dec. 26 is simply a bump in the road.

“We’ve been on a real good streak. We’ve played some good
hockey,” Maurice said. “It was a road game. We’re happy to leave it
here.”

Returning to Raleigh may help the Hurricanes. Tampa Bay star
Steven Stamkos – tied with Sidney Crosby for the NHL lead with 32
goals – has no goals and one assist in five games at the RBC
Center, where the Lightning had totaled 13 goals while dropping
eight straight before their most recent visit, a 3-2 victory last
Jan. 18.

Tampa Bay captain Vincent Lecavalier has still managed 32 points
– his most in any opponent’s arena – in 30 games in Raleigh.
Lecavalier, though, is in the midst of an eight-game goal drought,
posting a minus-8 rating in that stretch.