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Added layer to Lightning-Leafs potential playoff preview

By Joe Smith | Times staff writer
Published: February 26, 2018 Updated: February 26, 2018 at 04:02 PM
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) celebrates his goal with teammates Yanni Gourde (37), Alex Killorn (17) and Victor Hedman (77) with one second left in the second period against the Senators. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)

Tonight's Lightning-Leafs matchup at Amalie Arena means something in the standings, pitting the top teams in the Atlantic Division.

But in the bigger picture, there's also another layer here. With the teams potentially playing each other in the playoffs (a first-round tilt if the two finish No. 2 and No. 3 in the division), this offers a chance for both teams and their coaches to size each other up.

The same holds true for the Lightning facing the third-place Bruins three times in the final month. It's also a measuring stick on how far you have to go.

"We've got to be prepared to play the right way and anytime you're playing a team you're battling, it's only going to help," captain Steven Stamkos said.  "It's a little different down the stretch when playing teams that are out of it, it might not mean as much to them, so it's not going to have the same intensity level.

"But playing teams in the fight with you, it's as close as we're going to get to that atmosphere. So it's good for us."

The Lightning leads the Leafs by four points and has two games in hand. The Bruins are five points behind, but have two games in hand over Tampa Bay.

The Leafs won't have star Auston Matthews (injured) tonight, but the Lightning coaches can get a closer look at what matchups work with each lines, defensive pairs. The teams split their first two meetings, both in Toronto, with two more coming at Amalie, including tonight.

"What you try to do is get to know the team as much as you possibly can," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "They'll be excited to play us. We're excited to play them. It should be fun."

'Fake news'

The moment Canada's Sportsnet started its around-the-clock trade deadline coverage Monday morning, Lightning center Vladislav Namestnikov's name popped on the side of the screen as a player who is "on the block."

This type of thing comes with the territory around deadline day, especially with Sportsnet reporting over the weekend the Senators were pushing for a rostered player like Namestnikov in any Erik Karlsson deal.

"You try to stay away from it," Namestnikov said. "It's part of the business and things happen."

GM Steve Yzerman told the Times he doesn't intend to deal from his current roster, and has approached players at different points over the years to let them know trade rumors aren't true. But at 3 p.m., there's finally some finality.

"You put on any TV & you see somebody's name up on the board & most of it (pauses, smiles) most of its fake news. But, in the end, it probably wears on guys. Once 3 pm comes there's an exhale for some players."

Russia with love

Namestnikov said he and Russian teammates Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy stayed up late Saturday night in their Montreal hotel room to watch Russia's overtime gold-medal victory over Germany.

"It was a crazy game, fun to watch," Namestnikov said.

It wasn't lost on them that potentially all three of them – especially Kucherov and Vasilevskiy – could have been in South Korea playing for Russia had the NHL decided to participate in the Olympics.

"Nothing we can do about it," Namestnikov said. "All we can do is cheer for the guys that are there. We're happy they won."

Slap shots

G Andrei Vasilevskiy will start for the Lightning. Looks like Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin and Cory Conacher could be scratched, but we won't know until game-time. … Tomas Plekanec, acquired by the Leafs from Montreal Sunday, is expected to play against the Lightning tonight.