Lightning face tight race with Carolina, Florida in Central Division

Mari Faiello, Tampa Bay Times
·3 min read

TAMPA — The Lightning’s 56-game regular season has 12 games remaining, ending with back-to-back matchups against the Panthers on May 8 and 10.

Tampa Bay (60 points) is in third place in the Central Division after Saturday night’s loss to Florida, while a Carolina win Saturday left it alone in first, one point ahead of the Panthers and two ahead of the Lightning.

The Predators are in the fourth and final playoff spot in the division with 49 points.

With the divisions realigned for this season because of coronavirus issues, the playoff format was changed, too. The top four teams in each of the four divisions make the playoffs. The first two rounds are intradivision. In the first round, the first-place team meets the fourth, and the second meets the third. The winners of those series meet in the second round.

The winners of each division playoff advance to league semifinals, where teams will be reseeded based on their regular-season points. The semifinal winners make the Stanley Cup final.

So the standings are something the Lightning are watching closely.

“I’m checking the standings all the time,” defenseman Erik Cernak said after Saturday’s loss. “I know this year is really tight, especially in our division. Those two upcoming games against Carolina are going to be really big ones for us, and we just have to be ready for them.”

The Lightning are 3-2-1 against the Hurricanes heading into Monday’s matchup at Amalie Arena, the first of back-to-back games between the teams in their season series finale. Carolina is 6-3-1 over its past 10 games.

“(The games against Florida and Carolina) are big games, for sure, but we can’t look too far ahead,” defenseman Victor Hedman said after Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win against the Panthers. “We have to narrow down our game, and we just have to take it game by game. There’s not a whole lot left in the regular season, so we want to get our game back on track.”

After Saturday’s loss, center Brayden Point pinpointed the areas of concern for the Lightning.

“I think that’s a big one, giving up odd-man rushes and kind of those high-percentage scoring chances,” he said. “I think that’s something every team’s striving to be better at and definitely something we can work on.”

On Thursday, Tampa Bay gave up eight high-percentage scoring chances, three each in the first and third periods.

Those chances were reduced Saturday to five, including three in the second period. But a breakaway led to Florida center Frank Vatrano extending the Panthers’ lead to 4-1 in the second with less than three minutes remaining.

Coach Jon Cooper said he hopes the next two games will provide a better idea of how his team is shaping up with 79 percent of the season completed.

“We want to finish in the top four (in the division),” Cooper said, “so we like our spot in that situation. ... Now we have Carolina coming up in a back-to-back, so it’ll give us a little feel of where we are at.”

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