Panthers feel Lightning's pain
When this season began, a late January matchup between the Lightning and Panthers was expected to be a battle for the top spot in the Atlantic Division title.
Wasn't this supposed to be the year Tampa Bay and Florida finally met in a Stanley Cup Playoffs series?
But after finishing 1-2 in the Atlantic last season, both the Lightning and Panthers enter Thursday's game in Sunrise fighting for their playoff lives. Tampa Bay, tied with six other teams at 49 points, is chasing the Panthers (50).
This is a big game. Not for the top of the standings, but survival.
"I'm really surprised," said Panthers wing Jonathan Marchessault, who played with the Lightning the past few seasons. "Tampa and our team are really good hockey teams. And anybody that knew hockey at the beginning of the year would say we'd make the playoffs and it'd be a good battle between us.
"But it's part of the game. They've been struggling with injuries, and obviously us also. But it's getting closer and games are really important. It's going to be a big game, huge for both teams. And yes, it is surprising."
What's more stunning is how the teams' struggles have mirrored each other. Like Tampa Bay, which has missed key players Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan for most of this season, the Panthers have had to play without key stars Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov (Nick Bjugstad and Alex Petrovic are expected to return Thursday).
"World class players, they're not replaceable," said Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad. "You have to definitely fill their roles as much as possible. (Tampa Bay) has got a good team, they're going to find a way."
Said veteran Panthers wing Shawn Thornton: "Stamkos is maybe the best player in the league. You miss a guy like that, I don't care who you are. He's a big player for them."
Thornton said if the Panthers are healthy, "Who knows?" But Thornton also said the bottom line is Florida hasn't been nearly consistent enough.
"We have one good game, one bad one," Thornton said.
The Lightning has won back-to-back games just once in the past two months. The Panthers haven't won three in a row all season. It's hard to climb the standings without making any kind of extended run.
That's why, as potentially galvanizing as Tuesday's 5-2 win over the Blackhawks was for the Lightning, it means little if it can't put another good game together against the Panthers. It was an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay to see its leaders step up, with Tyler Johnson scoring twice in the third-period comeback. Alex Killorn set both goals up with his hustle in one of his best performances. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been inconsistent, delivered a 34-save performance.
Injuries aside, both the Lightning's and Panthers' healthy core players haven't been as good as last year. Florida's Ekblad is a minus-18. Jussi Jokinen has 11 points in 39 games. Even the ageless Jaromir Jagr has 29 points in 49 games. That's the same amount as Johnson, who has just nine points more than Stamkos, who played in just 17 games before his knee surgery.
"I don't think, the way things have been going, you deserve anything - you have to earn everything," Killorn said. "(Tuesday) we earned a win. It gives us confidence. We play Florida, it's a huge game. We've got to keep winning. We've got to keep beating these teams.
Especially your division rivals who have also underachieved. The Panthers have had more turmoil, with coach Gerard Gallant getting fired and GM Tom Rowe taking over.
"When things are going great, it's easy to be positive, easy to be happy, everyone is patting each other on the back," Rowe said. "The real test of a true good team and a high character team is how you handle the adversity, and when it gets real negative around you, you have to block it out.
"I don't care about (the injuries, we are not doing it. We have to start doing it real quick, because the season is going by us real fast."
Just ask the Lightning.