Lightning faces crucial 24 hours in playoff push

The Lightning, three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, has home games this weekend vs. the Canadiens and Stars.
The Lightning, three points out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, has home games this weekend vs. the Canadiens and Stars.
Published April 1, 2017

TAMPA — The Lightning had just wrapped up another improbable victory Thursday night, this time without leading scorer Nikita Kucherov, who was sick.

Of course he was.

But coach Jon Cooper summed up perfectly the 5-3 win over Detroit and the team's collective mind-set for the final six games: "We got two points. We needed them; we got them. Now it's 'Who's next?' "

The Lightning enters what might be the most important 24-hour stretch of its season tonight. Trailing Boston by three points for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, it has back-to-back home games tonight against Montreal and Sunday night versus Dallas.

There's no doubt next week's road games against the Bruins (Tuesday) and Maple Leafs (Thursday) are bigger, considering those are the teams Tampa Bay is chasing for a playoff spot. (Toronto is one point ahead of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, four points clear of the Lightning.) But if the Lightning can't take care of business this weekend, the results of those matchups could become moot.

Factor in the potential return of captain Steven Stamkos from knee surgery in the next few days and there will be plenty of intrigue around Amalie Arena.

Here are a few key elements of the telling 24 hours:

Center stage

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos could make his much-anticipated return tonight from mid-November knee surgery. Coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos is day-to-day and "pretty close" to playing again. Stamkos was among the last to leave the ice after Thursday's optional skate and was scheduled to be re-evaluated after Friday's team off day. With back-to-back games this weekend, Stamkos' minutes would likely be monitored if he returned against the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens tonight.

Then there's center Tyler Johnson, who hasn't played since suffering a lower-body injury March 9. He had his first skate with the team since then on Thursday, so it's hard to tell if he'll be ready for either of the next two games.

How's Kucherov?

Leading scorer Nikita Kucherov's illness wasn't overly concerning Thursday morning, but it became a bigger issue before game time and he was sent home before the win against Detroit. Kucherov has the type of bug that has gone around the Lightning dressing room the past few months. Defensemen Jason Garrison and Victor Hedman, and coach Jon Cooper had it at various points.

"Once you're hit, you're out," Cooper said. "Hopefully this is it and (Friday) is a good recovery day for (Kucherov). We'll see if he can play (tonight)."

Kucherov is having an MVP-caliber second half of the season, so his presence is paramount.

Budaj time?

Will veteran backup goaltender Peter Budaj play in one of the two games this weekend? Odds are he will. The Lightning has typically played Budaj once every four games since he was acquired in the Ben Bishop trade with the Kings in late February. Budaj, 34, has been impressive, winning two of his first three starts, including victories at the New York Rangers and Boston.

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Would Tampa Bay start Budaj tonight against Montreal, one of his former teams? Budaj is 0-1-1 with a 3.37 goals-against in two starts against the Canadiens this year, both while with the Kings. He's 1-1, 4.28 in two starts against Dallas.

Start it up

As exciting and encouraging as the Lightning's four straight wins have been, all required rallies. The come-from-behind victories came in different forms. The Lightning erased a three-goal deficit against Chicago on Monday and dug out of three one-goal holes against Boston on March 23. But it knows it can't rely on that kind of resilience and keeping getting off to slow starts.

"We have to put ourselves in better situations," wing Alex Killorn said. "I think coming down the stretch, going down against some of these teams is not what we want."

Scoreboard watching

Lightning fans should keep an eye on Boston's games today at home against Florida and Sunday in Chicago. Toronto plays today in Detroit. Carolina, one point behind Tampa Bay, has a back-to-back games as well, today hosting Dallas and Sunday in Pittsburgh. The Islanders, also one point behind the Lightning, plays Sunday at Buffalo.