Lightning vs. Maple Leafs tonight almost like a playoff game

Lightning right wing J.T. Brown battles Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson (4) while getting checked during a game earlier this season in Tampa.
Lightning right wing J.T. Brown battles Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson (4) while getting checked during a game earlier this season in Tampa.
Published March 19, 2014

The Lightning still has 14 games left in the regular season but coach Jon Cooper and his players said tonight's matchup with the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre is almost like a playoff game.

"Neck and neck in the standings, we're getting down to almost single digits in games and we haven't beaten these guys yet," Cooper said.

Oh, and by the way, there is a chance Tampa Bay (separated by one point in the Atlantic Division) could meet in the first round of the playoffs. For the Lightning, establishing it can win in Toronto, where it has lost four straight (including one in overtime) while being outscored 17-9 is important.

"You don't want to look too far ahead," Cooper said, "but we could be playing each other. It's a time when points are paramount, so you just have to keep munching them."

The Lightning has been doing just that, lately, with three straight wins, the first time it has done that since Jan. 19-25. It hasn't won four straight since Dec. 17-23. But as Cooper said, "I like the way we're playing."

"I feel like we've been playing better defensively, and that's the way you need to play in the playoffs," center Valtteri Filppula said. "These games are so important, you just can't let any games just blow by you. You have to at least give your all in every game."

Other stuff from the morning skate: Ben Bishop will get the start in net for the Lightning. ... The lineup likely will remain the same which means forwards Nikita Kucherov and Richard Panik, and defensemen Keith Aulie and Mark Barberio will be scratched. ... About wings B.J. Crombeen and Ryan Malone, who have played the past two games after being scratched in four straight, Cooper said, "They're playing the best hockey they've played all year." Cooper admitted scratching veterans like Malone and Crombeen and helping them understand their roles on the team has been something of a priority. "All players have pride and as a coach you never want to embarrass a player," Cooper said. "You have to be in full communication with these guys. Ultimately, in the end, you know you've got good guys when they put the team ahead of themselves, and that's what these guys are doing." Said Crombeen: "Obviously, it is what it is, but it's kind of a difficult situation for all parties. Nobody's really happy when you're told you're not playing. But everyhone has to buy into the greater good for the team." ... What has Malone and Crombeen brought to the team the past two games? "First and foremost they've given us unbelievable stability on the bench," Cooper said. "They're pulling on the bench. They keep guys into it. The other thing is they make our team a little bit taller." As Crombeen said: "We play a pretty hard, straightforward type of game, and this time of year that's usually when it's at its best, when games are tighter and physical and everyone is scratching and clawing for everything out there." ... With Malone and Crombeen getting minutes, rookie Nikita Kuchorov, who was off to such a good start, has been a scratch in four of Tampa Bay's past five games. "I've never been in this situation before," Kucherov said. "I just need to play better. I'm playing bad." Kucherov has eight goals, 15 points in 41 games, but has just one assist in his past 10 games. "I just maybe need to bring my confidence back, first of all," Kucherov said. "It's so hard." ... Filppula got his 300th career point with a goal in Monday's 4-3 win over the Canucks.