The last two Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Carolina Hurricanes, meet in a pivotal game Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum that’s likely to have a major impact on the Eastern Conference playoff race.
With a victory and a Toronto loss the same night, the Lightning (43-32-4) would clinch their fourth straight playoff appearance. The defending champion Hurricanes (39-32-8), meanwhile, could move into a tie for eighth place—or be eliminated from the race if they lose and Montreal defeats Boston.
This is the second matchup between the teams in a week. They met Friday at the RBC Center, with the Lightning winning 4-2 after twice rallying from one-goal deficits. Tampa Bay, which captured the Stanley Cup in 2004, followed up Friday’s victory with a 5-2 win over Washington the next day.
Tampa Bay had lost five of seven prior to the back-to-back victories.
“We’ve got to keep it going,” said Vincent Lecavalier, who scored his 51st goal of the season and added two assists Saturday. “A loss (Saturday) would have eliminated a little bit of what we did last night. When you win a big game, an emotional game like we did against Carolina, we’ve got to come back and back it up. If you don’t do that, it definitely hurts you.”
With three games left, Tampa Bay is only three points behind Atlanta for first place in the Southeast Division, but just two ahead of the eighth-place Canadiens. The Lightning close out the season Saturday against the Thrashers at Philips Arena.
Lecavalier, who has 106 points this season, has 15 goals and 24 assists in 45 games against the Hurricanes. The 39 points are second only to the 40 he has against the Capitals.
Tampa Bay leads the season series with Carolina 4-3-0. The Lightning have won three straight against the Hurricanes - all at the RBC Center - and nine of the last 12 meetings at Tampa.
While Tampa Bay is trying to better its playoff position, the defending champs are on the verge of missing the postseason. Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak Sunday with a 4-3 overtime win over Florida.
“It was a gut-check kind of game, and we responded to it. We got behind, but the important thing is the end result,” said forward Ray Whitney, who scored the winner. “It turned out to be a good day for us. We were up to the challenge this time.”
Whitney’s power-play goal came 1:30 into overtime. Carolina trailed 2-0 at the end of the first period, but Chad LaRose tied the game at 3 at 16:35 of the third.
Tuesday is the final road game of the season for the Hurricanes, who return home to face the Thrashers and Panthers in their final two games. Carolina is trying to avoid becoming the first team since the 1995-96 Devils to miss the playoffs after winning the Stanley Cup the previous season.