While the Tampa Bay Lightning have virtually no chance of winning their first Southeast Division title since 2003-04, reaching the playoffs for the first time in three seasons is a definite possibility.
Tampa Bay takes its longest winning streak in more than two years into Thursday night’s home game against a Boston Bruins team trying to build momentum following a near historic losing streak.
Despite a 7-1-1 record since Jan. 19, Tampa Bay (26-21-11) still trails East-leading Washington by more than 20 points in the division race. The Lightning, though, have won four in a row—their longest win streak since a five-game run Nov. 7-16, 2007—to move into playoff position.
They’ll have a good chance to make their first postseason appearance since 2006-07 if Antero Niittymaki(notes) continues his solid play in net. Niittymaki is 7-0-1 with a 1.09 goals-against average in his last eight starts after making 39 saves in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over Vancouver.
“He’s definitely earning his keep,” coach Rich Tocchet said of Niittymaki, 10-3-3 with a 1.75 GAA in 16 home games this season. “We just keep getting great play from him.”
Niittymaki, who has started Tampa Bay’s last four games, hasn’t faced the Bruins this season and is 0-4-1 with a 4.39 GAA in five career starts against them. Mike Smith(notes) stopped 66 of 71 shots as the Lightning and Bruins split two meetings this season.
Just as Niittymaki has taken hold of the goaltending job in Tampa Bay, rookie Tuukka Rask(notes) has done the same in Boston (25-22-11). Rask, leading the East with a 2.01 GAA, has allowed six goals while starting the last four games ahead of reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas(notes).
“Tuukka stood tall for us,” coach Claude Julien said after Rask made 43 saves in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout victory at Buffalo. “He made some big saves, and he’s been good for us. He’s getting an opportunity to play some consecutive games and he’s really taking advantage of it.”
Rask will likely make his first career start against Tampa Bay as the Bruins try to tie the Lightning in the standings with their third straight victory following an 0-6-4 slide. Rask recorded his fourth career shutout with 36 saves in a 3-0 win at Montreal on Sunday when Boston avoided tying the franchise record with its 11th consecutive loss.
The Bruins are trying to win three consecutive road games for the first time since November, but they will face a Tampa Bay club that is 10-1-2 at home since Dec. 23.
“We’re playing great as a team right now,” said Stamkos, who has a team-high 33 goals. “It feels good to contribute, especially this time of the year.”