Few expected the Tampa Bay Lightning to be co-leading the Atlantic Division deep into January after Steven Stamkos went down with an injury early in the season.
The Colorado Avalanche have been a surprise in their own right under first-year coach Patrick Roy.
Tampa Bay will look to end Colorado’s four-game road winning streak while winning a third straight contest Saturday night.
The Lightning (30-16-5) won 12 of their first 16 games while Stamkos scored 14 goals to tie for the league lead. He then suffered a broken leg in a loss at Boston on Nov. 11, but Tampa Bay has persevered without the former Rocket Richard Trophy winner, who will remain out until at least late next month.
Reigning Art Ross Trophy winner Martin St. Louis has eight goals and five assists during a nine-game point streak after assisting on Ondrej Palat’s goal in Thursday’s 4-3 shootout win over Ottawa.
Victor Hedman missed Sunday’s 5-3 win at Carolina with a leg injury, but he returned to record three assists against the Senators.
"We want to be up there in the top of the league," Hedman said. "We have to find ways to win."
The Lightning are tied with the Bruins – who have two games in hand – atop the Atlantic after finishing the 2013 season with the second-fewest points in the Eastern Conference.
Colorado (32-13-5) finished at the bottom of the West last season, but it has made quite a turnaround of its own under Roy.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper isn’t surprised.
"He’s won wherever he’s gone as a player and he’s won wherever he’s gone as a coach," Cooper said. "He wasn’t a hire just because of his name. You can tell by the way his team plays that he’s doing a really good job."
An upside to the Avalanche’s rough lockout-shortened season was the opportunity to select Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 overall pick. The 18-year-old leads all rookies with 33 points (17 goals, 16 assists) and is part of an improved squad that Cooper said resembles his own.
"Our teams mirror each other in the way we play and the talent we have," Cooper said. "Our teams are similar in the sense that we’ve both got a pretty speedy group up front and are skilled."
Tampa Bay also boasts one of the league’s top-scoring rookies in Tyler Johnson, who has two goals and six assists over his last eight. His 31 points (13 goals, 18 assists) are second among rookies to MacKinnon.
"People probably expected Nathan MacKinnon to be (one of the league’s top rookies), so in a way that’s probably more difficult to come through like that with the added pressure," Cooper said. "On (Johnson’s) side of things, he’s undrafted. For his name to even be in this conversation means he’s developed into a player well beyond what anyone ever thought."
MacKinnon was held off the score sheet in Colorado’s 3-2 win over Florida on Friday, but Paul Stastny scored and Ryan O’Reilly had a goal and an assist to help the Avs win for the fifth time in the last six contests.
Alex Tanguay returned with an assist after missing 36 games with knee and hip injuries.
"Getting a couple early is always going to set them back," said O’Reilly, whose 19th goal set a career high. "We started good and that won it for us."
The Avalanche’s six regulation road defeats are tied with Chicago and St. Louis for the NHL’s fewest. They will be playing their second of three road contests in four days.
Ben Bishop, whose 1.96 goals-against average ranks among the best in the league, could be in net for the Lightning. Colorado might counter with Jean-Sebastien Giguere after Semyon Varlamov made 34 saves Friday.
Giguere has a 4.79 GAA while dropping his last four starts for the Avalanche, who have won seven of the last eight meetings with Tampa Bay – the last coming in 2011.