Carolina (34-29-10) at Tampa Bay (39-23-11)

By MIKE LIPKA, STATS Editor Thursday, Mar 24, 2011 Puck Drop: 7:30 pm EDT Fri Mar 25, 2011

An extended offensive slump has created plenty of concern for the Tampa Bay Lightning as they prepare for the playoffs.

The Carolina Hurricanes are simply hoping to get there.

Both Southeast Division rivals have reason for urgency Friday night when they begin a home-and-home set at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Led by two of the league’s top four scorers in Steven Stamkos(notes) and Martin St. Louis(notes), Tampa Bay (39-23-11) has boasted one of the NHL’s most productive offenses for much of the season. That’s a big reason the team is all but assured its first postseason berth since 2007, something it can clinch by winning both upcoming games versus Carolina in regulation.

The Lightning, however, have been held to two or fewer goals eight times while going 2-5-4 in March. Stamkos has no points in his last three games, with he and St. Louis each posting a minus-3 rating in Tuesday’s 5-2 home loss to the New York Islanders.

“This is one of those things where it’s not going our way, but we have to make it go our way,” center Nate Thompson(notes) said. “These are times where you have to stick together and bounce back because no one is going to feel sorry for us, and no one is going to wait for us.”

The struggles have likely cost the Lightning a chance at the division title, leaving them in danger of falling to sixth or seventh in the Eastern Conference.

The Hurricanes (34-29-10) would love to be in that position, but eighth may be their best-case scenario. They trail Buffalo by three points for the final playoff spot.

The Sabres host Florida on Friday night, but Carolina’s players will try to avoid watching the scoreboard.

“We have to worry about ourselves, winning games, getting two points,” winger Chad LaRose(notes) said.

LaRose scored twice as Carolina won a second straight Tuesday, getting outshot 39-24 by East-worst Ottawa but rallying from an early two-goal deficit to win 4-3.

“It was a good win, but I think we’re lacking something,” winger Tuomo Ruutu(notes) said. “We can still get better. I feel like we play 10 minutes pretty good and then for a couple of minutes, they are all over us.”

Stamkos and St. Louis have been all over the Hurricanes this season, combining for nine points in three meetings, with Tampa Bay winning twice - both at home.

These teams meet again Saturday in Raleigh, where they’ll close the regular season against each other April 9.

Lightning coach Guy Boucher said he wasn’t too concerned during a 1-0-3 road trip that ended last weekend, but that Tuesday’s defeat - the club’s second straight at home to a non-playoff team - was more troubling.

Tampa Bay gave up two short-handed goals, running its total to four during a three-game losing streak.

“There’s a total lack of structure all over the place,” Boucher said. “When you’re all over the place, you give seams, you give all kinds of stuff.

“Power play, we’re gonna put three defensemen on the blue line it seems, because two is not enough.”

Carolina hasn’t scored while killing a penalty since Jan. 15, but that was a key goal by Eric Staal(notes) in a 6-4 win over the Lightning, who have allowed an NHL-high 15 short-handed goals.

The Hurricanes are likely more concerned with their punchless power play, which is 1 for 36 in the last nine games. Staal, who has no goals in his last seven games, has just one power-play point in his last 16.

The Carolina captain left Tuesday’s game with a lower-body injury but is expected to play Friday.

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