The Lightning find themselves smack in the middle of their first real rough stretch of adversity this season. Injuries have become a key concern, the most serious of which are a mysterious nerve condition resulting from a neck injury that has kept forward Simon Gagne off the ice since October and a broken hand that will sideline captain Vincent Lecavalier for at least a month. In addition, forward Steve Downie has missed the last couple of games with a back injury, although he could return soon. This has necessitated call-ups from Norfolk, with Johan Harju and Marc Pouliot joining the team recently.
Not helping matters is a bizarrely lopsided schedule that gives the Lightning 12 straight home games in late January and the month of February but currently puts them on the road for 15 of 20 games since Nov. 1 through the middle of December, with no consecutive home games during that span. The Lightning have lost five of their last six (one in overtime) and haven't won on the road since a 2-0 shutout of the Phoenix Coyotes on Oct. 30.
In spite of that, the Lightning still find themselves in good shape in the standings (8-6-2, 2nd, Southeast Division) but need to find a .way to work through the challenges they face now to keep the gap between them and the front-running Washington Capitals from widening and holding the rest of the Eastern Conference at bay.
Up first is a rare home game on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild (7-6-2, 3rd, Northwest Division). The Wild have been streaky so far this season, winning only four games during October but then winning three in a row to start November to work their way back into contention. However, they've now followed that streak up with two consecutive losses. Mikko Koivu leads the Wild in points (14), assists (11) and plus/minus (+5). Niklas Backstrom minds the net with a goals against average of 2.01 and a save percentage of .933.
The Bolts then head to the northeast on Wednesday to face the New York Islanders (4-9-3, 5th, Atlantic Division). The Islanders have lost nine straight and haven't won a game since beating the Lightning in Tampa 3-2 in overtime. James Wisniewski leads the Islanders in points (12) and assists (10). Rick DiPietro is the primary netminder with a goals against average of 4.21 and a save percentage of .854.
On the other end of the Atlantic Division standings, the Lightning will find the Philadelphia Flyers (10-4-2, 1st, Atlantic Division) on Thursday. The Flyers have won eight of their last ten and have built a five-point cushion between them and the 2nd place New York Rangers. Danny Breire leads the Flyers in goals with eight while Mike Richards has chipped in with 10 assists. Sergei Bobrovsky is the main man between the pipes with a goals against average of 2.09 and a .931 save percentage.
The Bolts close out the week's action with a trip to upstate New York to take on the Buffalo Sabres (5-9-3, 5th, Northeast Division). The Sabres have lost seven of their last ten and have suffered two separate five-game losing streaks so far this season. Derek Roy leads the Sabres in goals (8), assists (10) and points (18). One of the Sabres' biggest problems is the loss of all-star goaltender Ryan Miler, on injured reserve with a knee injury. Filling in has been the tandem of Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth.