The 14th place Toronto Maple Leafs (17-25-9) take on the 13th place Tampa Bay Lightning (19-20-10) in a must-win game tonight. The Leafs are 9 points out of a playoff spot and seem to be slipping further and further away. Two wins to close out their road trip would go a long way to help build some momentum with just a handful of games before the Olympic break.
It’s a battle of the ‘basement stairs’? The Carolina Hurricanes seem to have a pretty firm grip on last place in the conference but the Maple Leafs and Lightning are just slightly ahead of the struggling Canes. It’s a huge game for the Leafs, a must-win game of sorts. Toronto plays the 12th and 13th place teams in the eastern conference in their next two games. The Tampa Bay Lighting and Florida Panthers are the next two targets for the Leafs to leap-frog to chip away at the 9 point gap they face.
The Side Note
The Tampa Bay Lighting will be an extremely difficult opponent this evening. The Lightning will be more fired up than ever to bounce back from an embarrassing 8-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday night. In a post-game interview, coach Rick Tocchet said, “The only thing good was the bus was on time for this game. The bus driver was the best thing we had.” (nhl.com) While the Leaf playoff hopes are dire at best, the Lighting are just 4 points out so the 2 points up for grabs are big ones.
Tampa forward Ryan Malone has a knack for scoring big goals. With 20 goals scored on the season, 7 of them have been game-winning goals. League goal-scoring leader Patrick Marleau has 34 goals but he only has 6 game-winning tallies.
The best way to figure out which Toronto goalie will be starting is to toss a coin. Ron Wilson’s plan from the start of the season was to ride whichever goalie was hot. The problem with that strategy is what do you do when neither goalie gets hot? Jonas Gustavsson played against Tampa in both Toronto’s 2-1 loss to the Lightning on November 3rd as well as their 4-3 win on November 25th. However, Gustavsson has a 4.00 GAA in his last 4 starts… heads Vesa Toskala, tails Jonas Gustavsson.
On the injury front it appears Mike Komisarek is still about a week away from returning. Mikhail Grabovski is out on the injured reserve list. Wayne Primeau may make his return to the line-up tonight.
4-5-1 in their last 10 games, the Lightning are looking to win one at home against the lowly Leafs to start a winning streak. Tampa’s 11-6-5 record at home is adequate but they will have to improve on the road if they hope to climb back into the playoff picture. The Lightning are without goaltender Mike Smith who is out with a strained neck. Todd Fedoruk sat out Tuesday’s game and is questionable for tonight.
Players to Watch
Tomas Kaberle has a 3-game point streak going with 1 G and 2 A over that stretch. Alexei Ponikarovsky has 4 points in his last 2 games with 3 G and 1 A along with a +2 rating.
Vincent Lecavalier has rebounded from a slow start to the season and has 7 points in his last 5. Alex Tanguay is dangerous as well with 5 points in his last 5.
Toronto 4 – Tampa Bay 2
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