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.