TAMPA — Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman and coach Guy Boucher always tell their players to keep an eye on the big picture.
Don't chase the standings, they have said. Embrace "the process" as a way to improve and results will take care of themselves.
Tonight, though, is a little different. Tonight, the result will help indicate how the process is going as Tampa Bay, No. 2 in the East, faces the Flyers, No. 1 in the East and the league, at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"(Tonight) is huge," Boucher said. "This is an opportunity to test ourselves. It's important that as a team we prove to ourselves that we're either closer or further away than we thought."
"I don't usually put too much into one game," Yzerman said, "but it's going to be an eye-opener."
As if facing the Flyers, on a 10-2-0 run and with a league-best 37 road points, isn't enough, Tampa Bay might be without forward Ryan Malone (mid-body injury), and defensemen Mattias Ohlund (knee) and Mike Lundin (mid-body injury).
Though both blue-liners said they will be ready, Boucher said callups from AHL Norfolk were possible.
It is the first game after the All-Star break, and Monday's practice was the first time the Lightning was on the ice since Tuesday. Boucher said he wasn't surprised players' legs were "heavy" during a hard 90-minute workout.
But Philadelphia is in the same situation.
"I expect both teams to have some problems," Boucher said. "It's the execution. I don't think there's going to be a will problem. Both teams are going to respect each other and battle it out as hard as they can. But the reality is, the execution will probably be off for both teams."
Tampa Bay, which has won five straight and has a four-point lead over the Capitals in the Southeast Division, better get it together quickly.
After the Flyers comes Washington on Friday, the Hurricanes on Feb. 12, the Flyers on the 15th and Red Wings on the 17th.
It is part of a 12-game homestand but also the season's final 31 games in which the intensity and viciousness will increase and the scores get closer as playoff positions are determined.
"The last 30 games are going to be a battle," left wing Simon Gagne said. "It's playoff time. It may not be playoffs for real, but all these games are do-or-die and make a difference in the end."
Starting against the Flyers, whom the Lightning beat twice in Philadelphia, including a wild 8-7 victory Nov. 18. But the Flyers have won three straight at the Times Forum while outscoring Tampa Bay 18-5.
"They're a real good team," defenseman Pavel Kubina said. "They have very skilled forwards and are very physical."
In fact, Philadelphia's 203 times shorthanded are tied for third in the league, a tendency that could benefit the Lightning, which has the league's No. 4 home power play at 25.3 percent.
But the bottom line is this:
"They're first (in the East), and we're second right behind them," said Gagne, who was traded to Tampa Bay last summer after 11 seasons with Philly.
"At some point you want to play against the best and see where you're at. You want to know if the way we play is at the level to play against the best."
THOMPSON SIGNS: Center Nate Thompson signed a two-year, $1.8 million contract extension that will pay $950,000 next season, including a $100,000 signing bonus, and $850,000 in 2012-13.
"It's nice to get it done during the season and not worry about it any more and just play hockey," said Thompson, who is making $625,000 this season and could have been a free agent.
Thompson, 26, who centers the fourth line and is a premier penalty killer, has seven goals and 17 points in 51 games.
"He's exemplified the way we want to do things on the ice and off the ice," Yzerman said. "We like his work ethic. We like his attitude and competitiveness."
SMITH RETURNS: Goaltender Mike Smith completed his two-game conditioning assignment with AHL Norfolk and is back with the Lightning.
Smith, out since Dec. 20 with a sprained left knee, was 0-2-0 with a 2.56 goals-against average and .900 save percentage with the Admirals.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.