Bubble teams Tampa, Calgary face off with important points on line
TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning have only two points less than the Calgary Flames, and yet their respective standings put a far greater urgency on Tampa Bay, which sits four points out of the final wild card in the Eastern Conference as the play host to Calgary, which entered Wednesday’s games with the final playoff spot from the Western Conference.
Both teams are playing well — the Lightning are 5-0-2 in their last seven, the Flames 6-2-1 in their last nine, and they’ll need to continue that kind of surge to stay in postseason contention over the final 20-plus games of the season.
“You have to keep plugging away and it will turn for you if you’re doing the right things,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday, coming off an impressive 4-1 home win over the Edmonton Oilers. “Now, it’s just turning for us.”
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The Lightning have gotten five straight wins from goalie Ben Bishop, which makes them a difficult team to peg approaching the trade deadline — does general manager Steve Yzerman deal away his free-agent-to-be goalie or any other key parts that could be lost in the offseason, or does he gamble that the Lightning can get healthy, make the playoffs and make a splash once they’re in? Cooper sees that some of the bad breaks that worked against his team in recent months are starting to go their way, much the same way Bishop has looked more like the Vezina finalist he was last season as well.
“Much like we’re starting to point in games now when we felt we could have pointed earlier and didn’t, it’s the same with the goaltender,” Cooper said of the recent turnaround.
In injury news, Lightning forward Ryan Callahan is out indefinitely and will likely miss the rest of the regular season after having a follow-up surgical procedure on his right hip in New York on Tuesday. He originally had surgery to repair a labral tear in the hip on June 21. Callahan, who hasn’t played since Jan. 7, has two goals and two assists in just 18 games this season.
“He just didn’t feel right,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times.
Calgary is coming off one of its biggest wins of the season — they were up 4-1 at Nashville on Tuesday night, only to see the Predators score four goals in the second period to take the lead, but the Flames rallied to tie the game in the third period and win in overtime. They have a balanced scoring lineup with five players between 36 and 41 points this season, currently led by center Mikael Backlund’s 41 points on 17 goals and 24 assists; 19-year-old rookie Matthew Tkachuk isn’t far behind and faces a Lightning team that just handled Connor McDavid’s first career trip to Tampa on Tuesday night.
Tuesday’s win can have a lasting effect on Calgary as they work to fortify their playoff position down the stretch, even during their current five-game road trip, which includes a back-to-back in Tampa and Friday night at the Florida Panthers.
“This is what it’s like to battle another team that’s trying to claw and scrape to be in the playoffs,” coach Glen Gulutzan said of the back-and-forth with Nashville. “I thought there was a lot of character shown by both clubs, with them coming back and their push in the second, but our push back in the third showed a lot for our group.”