Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning game preview

BY The Sports Xchange • March 27, 2017

TV: NBC Sports

Time: 7:30 p.m.

TAMPA, Fla. -- With the regular season winding down, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks find themselves in wildly different spots for the postseason.

Tampa Bay can only hope motivation will be a major factor as it hosts Chicago on Monday night.

The Lightning (36-29-9) are still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase, just three points out of the final wild card and four behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division.

Chicago (48-21-6) is in much better shape, with a seven-point lead in Central Division and all but assured of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the playoffs.

The teams come from opposite directions short term. Tampa Bay just had a back-to-back sweep at Boston and Detroit. Chicago is coming off a 7-0 loss at Florida on Saturday that coach Joel Quenneville called "an ugly, ugly loss."

"It's more of a wakeup call for all of us," left winger Ryan Hartman said of the Saturday loss, which came after the Blackhawks had gone 6-0-1 in their previous seven games. "We haven't been playing good hockey at all lately. We have to step it up."

Tampa Bay looked to drop out of contention with three straight home losses, but two road wins -- sparked by Nikita Kucherov's hat trick at Boston and his game-winner in overtime at Detroit -- have them close to salvaging a postseason berth.

"Your best players have got to be your best players and he's a big reason why we're back in this race," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Kucherov after Friday's OT winner vs. the Red Wings.

In addition to trading off three key players at the deadline -- goalie Ben Bishop and centers Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula -- the Lightning continue to play without forwards Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson and Ryan Callahan. Their extended absences have forced a slew of rookies into major ice time, but Cooper said their surprising poise has helped Tampa Bay stay in the postseason hunt.

"What has happened is they're giving us quality minutes," Cooper said Sunday. "They haven't been getting the points they'd like to, but they've controlled games territorially. They've carried play, they've given us energy, they've worked really hard. They've chewed up minutes for us in a positive way."

The Lightning won 5-2 in Chicago in January, and a home win would potentially close the gap in the standings -- Toronto goes into Monday's play third in the division with 85 points, Boston in the second wild card with 84 points and the Islanders still ahead with 82 points. The Lightning are at 81.

Don't count out charging Carolina, which has 79 points and a game in hand on the Islanders and Lightning and two games in hand on the Bruins. The Hurricanes are 7-0-3 in their past 10 games.

Kucherov is now second in the NHL with 38 goals, behind only Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (42). Chicago's Patrick Kane is third overall in scoring, with 33 goals and 48 assists for 81 points. Edmonton's Connor McDavid (88 points) and Crosby (82) occupy the top two spots.