National Hockey League
Panthers-Lightning Preview
National Hockey League

Panthers-Lightning Preview

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 12:18 p.m. ET

The Tampa Bay Lightning lost last year's Stanley Cup Finals, so vying for their first division title in 12 years was among their minimum expectations for 2015-16.

Tied atop the Atlantic Division with the Lightning has the Florida Panthers far exceeding theirs.

The Panthers and Lightning meet for the final time this season Saturday night in a matchup with major implications on the division race.

Tampa Bay (43-26-5) won its only Stanley Cup in 2003-04, and that was the last time they also claimed a division title. The reigning Eastern Conference champion finished second in the Atlantic in each of the last two seasons.


With eight games left in the regular season, Tampa Bay is tied for first with Florida on points but has the edge on tiebreakers.

The Panthers (41-24-9), the NHL's biggest surprise, are poised to at least reach the playoffs for just the second time in 15 seasons.

"We're battling right now for the division lead and it's a lot of fun late in the season," coach Gerard Gallant said. "It's crunch time, we're getting close to playoff time so everybody is battling for points and you want to make sure you get in. It should be a great game and it's going to be a great battle."

Florida has won three of the four meetings with the Lightning this season. However, the Panthers are 1-4-1 in their last six visits to Tampa Bay, including a 3-1 loss most recently on Jan. 17.

"It's a big one. This could set ourselves up nice down the stretch to get a little bit of a cushion on them," left wing Garrett Wilson said. "Every team amps it up trying to get peaking going into the playoffs, playing their best hockey going into the playoffs. Everyone is playing a little more physical."

That includes the Panthers, who have won three of their last four on the road after beating Boston 4-1 on Thursday.

Vincent Trocheck had one goal and one assist, finding the net for a third straight game. The center has five goals and seven assists over the past nine contests, giving him career highs of 24 and 28 on the season.

Trochek scored the finale in a four-goal second period Jan. 23 when Florida beat Tampa Bay 5-2 at home.

Reilly Smith also had a goal in that period, his first in 12 games against the Lightning. He has 11 points over the last 12 games after scoring against the Bruins.

The Lightning have won three straight after beating the New York Islanders 7-4 on Friday.

Tampa Bay, though, was dealt a major blow when Anton Stralman left in the first period with a broken leg after the tip of his skate got stuck in the ice as he fell. He's out indefinitely, leaving the Lightning without one of their top two defensemen for at least the remainder of the regular season.

"Naturally, if anybody gets hurt, especially someone like Anton, it's a stinger," coach John Cooper said. "But I'm not going to sit here and say, one of our defensemen got hurt that's it, we're mailing it in. No way. Stral would be the first one to tell you, 'boys, let's go extend the season so I can comeback.' That will be our goal."

Steven Stamkos has six goals and three assists over the past six games after scoring his 35th of the season Friday. The star center, however, hasn't scored against Florida this season and doesn't have a point in the last three matchups.

Stamkos' 45 points in 39 career meetings are his highest total against any opponent.


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