March 26 – Day 163 – It’s so much more than a cup… It’s the Governor’s Cup

With four goals in the third period, Tampa Bay beat the Islanders 7-4 to reclaim the Atlantic Division lead.

It was actually New York that opened the scoring, courtesy of a Brock Nelson slap shot at the 8:54 mark (his 25th tally of the season), assisted by Ryan Strome and Josh Bailey, but the Lightning leveled the score 4:48 with tip-in goal from Nikita Kucherov (his 29th tally of the season), assisted by Alex Killorn and Andrej Sustr.  With his 14th goal of the season, Vladislav Namestnikov gave the Bolts a 2-1 lead only nine seconds after Kucherov’s tally, the score that would hold until the intermission.

5:02 after resuming play, Steven Stamkos connected on a slap shot for his 35th goal of the season, assisted by First Star of the Game Jason Garrison and Kucherov.  New York finally scored their second goal 23 seconds later on an unassisted Shane Prince wrister, his fifth of the season, to set the score at 3-2.  With 3:42 remaining in the period, the Isles leveled the game on a Johnny Boychuk tip-in, assisted by John Tavares (his 31st helper of the season) and Bailey, which held into the deciding third frame.

The Bolts took another lead at the 6:03 mark of the third when Sustr connected on a slap shot, assisted by Garrison (his fifth helper of the season), but the Islanders leveled again 19 seconds later on a Nikolay Kulemin snapper, assisted by Frans Nielsen (his 28th helper of the season) and Travis Hamonic.  Tampa‘s game-winning goal was scored with 9:51 remaining in regulation, a Tyler Johnson wrister (his 13th tally of the season) assisted by Second Star Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Marchessault.  Twenty-three seconds later, Garrison scored the first insurance goal, assisted by Palat and Marchesault (his 10th helper of the season).  The final goal was an empty netter from Victor Hedman, assisted by Matthew Carle and Palat (his 19th helper of the season).

Ben Bishop gets the win after saving 27 of 31 shots faced (87.1%), while Thomas Greiss takes the loss after saving 35 of 41 (85.4%).

After that result, the DtFR Game of the Day series now stands at 74-42-17, favoring the home sides by 35 points over the roadies.

I could be wrong, but I believe that this is the most exciting day of hockey we’ve had all season as, with the exception of New Jersey and Vancouver, every team is in action today.  Business opens at 1 p.m. eastern when Winnipeg visits Buffalo (BELL TV), followed an hour later by Pittsburgh at Detroit (SN).  3 p.m. eastern is the beginning of Minnesota at Colorado, which precedes the last matinee of the day, Dallas at San Jose, by 60 minutes.  Six games drop the puck at the usual starting time of 7 p.m. eastern (Boston at Toronto [CBC], the New York Rangers at Montréal [NHLN/TVAS/SN], Anaheim at Ottawa [CITY/TVAS2], Florida at Tampa Bay, St. Louis at Washington and the New York Islanders at Carolina), with Columbus at Nashville trailing an hour later.  The trio of nightcaps end the night at 10 p.m. eastern (Philadelphia at Arizona, Edmonton at Los Angeles [CBC] and Chicago at Calgary [SN]).

Whew… I know.  Gotta catch our breath!

There’s five divisional rivalries being played this evening (Minnesota at Colorado, Boston at Toronto, Florida at Tampa Bay, New York at Carolina and Edmonton at Los Angeles), and three are between teams currently qualifying for the playoffs (Dallas at San Jose, Florida at Tampa Bay and St. Louis at Washington).

Although both Troy Brouwer and Seth Jones will be making noticeable first returns to previous home arenas (the Verizon Center and Bridgestone Arena, respectively), the battle for the Atlantic Division lead is just too important to ignore.

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This will be Florida‘s ninth time featured in the Game of the Day series, where they own a 4-3-1 record.  The last time they were featured was March 14, when they lost 3-2 in Brooklyn.  With yesterday’s win over the Islanders, Tampa Bay improves their series record to 11-3-2.

The 41-24-9 Florida Panthers currently occupy second place in the Atlantic Division (due to losing a regulation+overtime wins tiebreaker) and fourth in the Eastern Conference.  To get to that position, they’ve played the fifth stingiest defense, paired with the seventh highest scoring offense in the league.

Led by Dmitry Kulikov’s 111 blocks, Florida has allowed only 2183 shots to reach 31-18-6 Roberto Luongo and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.2% for only 182 goals against, the fifth fewest in the NHL.  Although the defense as a whole has found incredible success, the penalty kill has not been as good, neutralizing only 81.25% of their infractions for 45 power play goals against, the 15th worst rate in the league.

Even with Vincent Trocheck’s team leading 168 shots, the Panthers have fired the puck only 2108 times, with a whopping 9.7% finding the back of the net for 211 goals, the seventh most in the league.  Yet again, the special teams have let Florida down, as their power play has converted only 17.06% of their opportunities for 43 extra man tallies (led by Aleksander Barkov’s nine power play goals), the ninth worst rate in the league.

Florida‘s last game was Thursday, a 4-1 victory in Boston.  As both squads are tied on points, the Panthers will take the division lead as long as they win tonight, but a regulation loss paired with a Bruins win will reduce their lead for second place to three points.

The 43-26-5 Tampa Bay Lightning are currently first in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.  The third best defense in the league has gotten them to that position, which has been backed by the 12th best offense.

Led by Hedman’s 128 blocks, the Lightning has allowed only 2096 shots to reach 31-19-4 Ben Bishop and co., of which they’ve collectively saved 92.5% for 173 goals against, the third fewest in the NHL.  That success continues even when a man down, as Tampa‘s sixth ranked penalty kill neutralizes 83.71% of opposing power plays, allowing only 36 extra man goals.  Further improving on that solid rate, they’ve scored seven shorthanded goals, two more than the league average.

Even with Stamkos’ team leading 199 shots, the Bolts have fired the puck only 2125 times, with a solid 9.4% finding the back of the net for 202 goals (led by Stamkos’ 35 tallies), the 12th most in the league.  Tampa‘s hole continues to be their power play, as their 16.46% success rate, good for 40 extra man goals (led by Stamkos’ 13 power play tallies), ranks fifth worst in the NHL.

With last night’s 7-4 victory over the Islanders, Tampa Bay enters this game riding a three game winning streak.  A win tonight officially breaks the tie for the division lead, but a loss could give them only a three point lead over third place.

Florida has already won the Governor’s Cup this season, regardless of tonight’s outcome, with a 3-1-0  against the Bolts – but this game is much more important than an in-state trophy series.  The last time they met was January 23, a 5-2 Panthers victory in Sunrise.

Some players to keep an eye on in tonight’s game include Florida‘s Luongo (four shutouts [tied for sixth most in the league], .922 save percentage [tied for seventh best in the league] and 31 wins [tied for eighth most in the league]) & Tampa Bay‘s Bishop (2.05 GAA [second best in the league], .927 save percentage [second best in the league], five shutouts [tied for second most in the league] and 32 wins [tied for sixth most in the league]), Hedman (+23 [10th best in the league]) and Stamkos (35 goals [tied for fourth most in the league]).

I don’t see a lot of goals being scored in this one.  Given the fact that neither of Florida‘s special teams give them much of an advantage and that the Lightning are playing at home, I think I’m leaning towards a Tampa Bay winner.  That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers pull off the upset, proven by them already winning the season series.

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