Islanders-Lightning Preview

With less than 10 weeks remaining before the end of the regular

season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to make a strong push

for their first playoff appearance in three years.

Returning home to face the New York Islanders might help them

take another step in that direction.

The Lightning look to continue their strong play at St. Pete

Times Forum on Thursday night when they open a four-game homestand

against an Islanders team seeking to avoid matching its longest

losing streak of the season.

Tampa Bay (23-21-11) has one of the worst road records in the

NHL at 9-15-5, but strong play at home has the Lightning thinking

postseason. They’re currently tied with Florida and the New York

Rangers for the final playoff spot in an Eastern Conference so

tight that the 13th-place Islanders (23-25-8) lurk three points

behind.

The players know they have little room for error.

“We’re in a playoff mode right now,” Martin St. Louis said

after scoring for the fourth straight game in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory

at Atlanta – another team among the bunch seeking the last playoff

spots. “It was good to get the win in regulation. It was big

because they didn’t get a point.”

The Lightning, who are 7-1-2 on home ice since dropping three in

a row there Dec. 7-23, are 7-0-2 in the Islanders’ last nine

visits, with shutout wins in the last two. Tampa Bay hasn’t lost at

home to New York in regulation since a 3-1 defeat March 16,

2004.

Mike Smith made 30 saves Dec. 5 at home to lead the Lightning

over the Islanders 4-0. Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and Jeff Halpern

and Victor Hedman scored for Tampa Bay while Vincent Lecavalier,

Andrej Meszaros and St. Louis each added two assists.

St. Louis, who leads the Lightning with 43 assists and 60

points, has five goals and three assists in his last eight

games.

Steven Stamkos, who had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 victory at

New York on Dec. 21, looks to extend his point streak to a career

high-tying eight games – a feat he previously accomplished Oct.

12-Nov. 2. The second-year center has four goals and six assists

during his current run.

The Islanders may be envious of that kind of scoring punch. The

league’s second-lowest scoring team this season, New York is

averaging 1.2 goals during its five-game losing streak. All the

defeats during the current streak have come in regulation for the

Islanders, who took three games to overtime during their

season-worst six-game skid that opened 2009-10.

New York has also dropped four straight on the road and is

trying to avoid a winless four-game trip.

“The key for us is to stay upbeat, stay positive,” Islanders

goaltender Rick DiPietro said following Sunday’s 2-0 loss at

Florida. “Take the things that we did well from this game and move

on. There’s no time to pout. It’s about getting back on track and

winning as many games as you can going into the stretch.”

Winning may be a tall order for the Islanders regardless of who

starts in net for Tampa Bay. Mike Smith has earned both Lightning

wins over New York in the season series, while Antero Niittymaki

made 26 saves in Tuesday’s win and is 5-1-1 with a 1.75

goals-against average in his last seven starts.

The options don’t look as appealing for Islanders coach Scott

Gordon. DiPietro lost his third straight start Sunday, while Dwayne

Roloson is 0-2-0 with a 4.04 GAA in his last two starts at Tampa

Bay.

Malone has no points in his last four games, but facing the

Islanders could help him get back on track. He scored two

third-period power-play goals and matched a career high with four

points in the Dec. 21 victory in New York.

Lecavalier has six goals and three assists in his last six games

versus the Islanders.