BRANDON — Coming off two emotionally-charged games against some of the league's top teams, there's a thought the Lightning would need to guard against a letdown tonight against the last-place Panthers.
But coach Guy Boucher said there's several reasons that won't be the case.
The fact Tampa Bay lost both games, in a shootout to the Flyers on Tuesday and by a 6-2 margin against the Red Wings Thursday night, makes it all the more important it not leave any points on the table tonight, especially with a tough schedule ahead.
The Lightning also has had its struggles against the Panthers, including going 1-1-1 this season.
Most important, as Boucher points out, the Lightning saw Thursday night how much room there is to grow.
"These guys have pride and they want to get better, but we want to be a championship team," Boucher said. "We saw the gold standard (Thursday against the Red Wings). For us it's a very different situation than any other one before. We finally saw what it takes and you talk about it. You can be on your way there, that's where we are. But we saw the gold standard and we're not there yet. And it's good because now we see the carrot, now we can run. We feel like running now. We don't feel like sitting."
Boucher held a meeting Friday morning with the players, emphasizing what they have to work on. They went through an intense, hour-long practice at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum. But there will be no morning skate today, as Boucher said the team needs no reminding — they know what the stakes are.
"Right to the end of the season, those two points could be the difference between where you are in the standings," veteran wing Simon Gagne said. "It doesn't matter if you face the Panthers, the Red Wings, the Flyers. It's a big game. I think from that point on, it's focusing on us and playing our game and going for the two points, no matter who we face."
The Lightning has had its troubles against the Panthers, going 7-6-2 against them the past three seasons, and goalie Tomas Vokoun keeps them in a lot of games.
"They've been tough on everybody," Boucher said. "Not just tough against us. If you look at the scores, they always keep it close."
The Lightning is 5-3-1 on its current 12-game homestand, but 2-3-1 in its past six games. And the schedule doesn't get any easier, not with the surging Coyotes, who entered Friday having won six straight and seven of 10, and Devils (8-1-1 in same stretch) coming to the St. Pete Times Forum next week before a road trip to New York.
"We've played some good games against some good teams, we've challenged ourselves," Boucher said. "The last three games right now, we're looking at them as everything we've learned, we've got to put it into practice. ...
"If we would have won against Philly and won against Detroit, then I would tell you, we're going to get the whip out for (today). But we don't need a whip. We know these three games are important to us."
MISCELLANY: G Dan Ellis will start in net tonight against Florida, with Boucher saying it had been planned for a while. D Mike Vernace was reassigned to AHL Norfolk.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.