TAMPA — Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop didn't have to say much to put into perspective the importance of tonight's showdown with the Red Wings.
"It's going to be big," he said.
For a game in mid March, this matchup at Amalie Arena promises to have a playoff feel, probably because it has playoff stakes. While the Lightning is second in the Atlantic Division, the Red Wings — who hold the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference — are just four points behind.
Win in regulation, and Tampa Bay (41-26-5) can have a three-point cushion for second place and six up on Detroit. Lose? The gap tightens with just nine games to go.
"I've been in the league a couple years now and I don't think I've ever seen anything tight like this," said defenseman Anton Stralman, in his ninth NHL season. "And it's fun. I try to enjoy that, I want to play games that matter the most and, now, every game is big, and all points are huge. It's fun playing right now."
The Red Wings (36-25-11) are coming off a come-from-behind victory over the first-place Panthers Saturday in Sunrise. They got to relax on Sunday's day off in Fort Lauderdale while the Lightning got home after 6 a.m. following a flight from Arizona.
That's why Tampa Bay took Monday off to rest, hoping to build off of Saturday's much-needed 2-0 win over the Coyotes. It was just the second win in its past seven.
"We're not where we want to be," veteran Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "It's not a good feeling right now, how we've played recently. It's not for a lack of ability or talent, it's the other things. That shows you how important those things are — the focus, intensity, commitment to everything we do to win hockey games. We have to have that fear and understand we're not guaranteed anything.
"The goal remains the same, is we need to win hockey games until the playoffs, then it's obvious. You know how playoffs go. But we need to get there first."
The Lightning opens a telling six-game homestand tonight, the first three games against teams currently in playoff spots, including Saturday against Florida. Tampa Bay hopes to avoid needing several victories on its season-ending four-game road trip to seal a playoff spot.
"You look at the standings and how tight it is now, we need to get back on the streak to get us some breathing room down the stretch or you're going to have to play those last few games and win to get in," captain Steven Stamkos said. "You want to be in a position where, if anything, you're playing for home ice. … I'm confident this group will rebound."
And that starts against the Red Wings.
"Two teams battling for spots," coach Jon Cooper said. "It should be a good one."
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lightning vs. Red Wings
When/where: 7:30, Amalie Arena
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun, 970-AM
Key stats: The Red Wings (36-25-11) won two of the first three meetings with the Lightning this season, though Tampa Bay won 3-1 Feb. 3 in Tampa. Detroit hasn't won a regular-season game in Tampa since Feb. 17, 2011. G Jimmy Howard, who will start, is 5-2-2 with a 1.87 goals-against average in nine starts against the Lightning. G Ben Bishop is 8-4-0, 1.69 in 13 regular-season games against Detroit.