TAMPA — With the Lightning's chances of making the playoffs as slim as a piece of paper, every one of its 21 remaining games is a vital opportunity to gain points.
But something about tonight's matchup with the Hurricanes at the Tampa Bay Times Forum feels like a must-win.
A loss won't mathematically eliminate the Lightning from the playoffs, but it sure as heck would feel like it.
"A huge game for us," defenseman Victor Hedman said.
With 31 points, the Hurricanes (15-10-1) lead the Southeast Division and are eight points ahead of fourth-place Tampa Bay (11-15-1). Beat Carolina and the gap is down to six. Lose and it's 10 with a six-game difference in the loss column, a margin so wide the Lightning might as well be waving at the Hurricanes from across the Grand Canyon.
Tampa Bay also could reach the playoffs by finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference. But that might be an even tougher road. As of today, the 13th-place Lightning would have to leapfrog five teams to get there; to overtake the Hurricanes in the Southeast, Tampa Bay would have to jump over only three.
So, beating Carolina for a 3-0-0 lead in the five-game season series — big as a tiebreaker — would be an enormous boost to a team in a 5-14-1 skid and add to the sliver of hope that a playoff push is possible.
"It makes it more urgent," center Steven Stamkos said. "We're at a point now where it's almost a must-win."
Consider it, too, a must-shoot.
The Lightning had just 31 shots on goal in its past two games combined. Add the three shots it had in the third period of last Saturday's loss to the Canadiens and Tampa Bay has been outshot 81-34 in its past seven periods. It also has five goals in its past four home games, all losses.
"Not acceptable," Stamkos said. "We've got to find a way to score more goals. We have to find a way to fight stronger in front of their net and create chances. We're doing a lot of talking. We need some action."
Especially because the team has defended well — allowing 10 or fewer scoring chances in 13 of its past 15 games, coach Guy Boucher said — and lately has gotten better goaltending.
Actually, Boucher said, a lack of shots on goal was not the problem in Thursday's 2-0 loss to the Islanders in which Tampa Bay was outshot 29-18. It was a lack of accurate shots.
The Lightning had as many overall shot attempts, 49, as New York. It's just that 15 were blocked and 13 missed the net.
"We have to be more accurate," Boucher said. "We have to force ourselves in more where the goalie is. We have to do a better job of giving our defensemen some tips, sticks ready when they're ready to shoot."
As for tonight's game, Boucher said, "Right now we just want to win. Red jersey, blue jersey, white jersey, we just have to be at our best and improve what we didn't do right from the last game."
"We want to start a run here," Hedman said. "We need to do that. It starts (today) against Carolina."
INJURY UPDATE: Forwards Tom Pyatt (upper body) and Ben Pouliot (right shoulder) skated Friday while wearing red no-contact jerseys. Pyatt might be able to play against the Hurricanes, Boucher said. Pouliot is not close.
Hall on waivers: Forward Adam Hall was put on waivers.