When Ryan Malone put the puck past the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist in the 11th round of a shootout Thursday night, Tampa Bay was suddenly in 1st place and behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins as far as a playoff seed. As a result, suddenly there are a lot more teams chasing the Lightning (20-10-5, 1st, Southeast Division) than being chased. This week, they'll see three of those teams in their rearview mirror and will find out if those objects truly are larger than they appear.
First up is a trip to Atlanta to take on the Thrashers (19-13-5, 3rd, Southeast Division). This game could be ugly in terms of chippiness as there are hard feelings resulting from a knee-to-knee hit by Eric Boulton on Nate Thompson the last time the two teams met, a 2-1 Tampa Bay shootout win at the St. Pete Times Forum on December 15th. That game inspired the following exchange:
"He purposely puts his knee out and then he barely misses with an elbow too. Not really too surprised, (he's) not the best player in the world so he has to compensate by sticking his knee out when I am by him with 10 seconds left in the game." -- Nate Thompson on Eric Boulton
"Who's Nate Thompson?" -- Eric Boulton on Nate Thompson
So yeah. Add the fact that the Thrashers and Lightning are currently separated by just two points and will only face each other two more times before the end of the season and it should be no surprise if this game has a much higher intensity level than what you might usually find in a late December game between the Thrashers and Lightning.
The Boston Bruins (18-11-4, 2nd, Northeast Division) currently occupy the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and are in town Tuesday for their second visit of the season. The two teams split decisions in their two previous meetings with the Lightning winning 3-1 at the Forum in November and losing 8-1 in Boston.
The last game of 2010 will be a visit from the Montreal Canadiens (20-13-2, 1st, Northeast Division). The Canadiens actually have fewer points than five other teams in the Eastern Conference, but because they currently lead the Northeast Division, they're the third seed. This will be the second meeting between the Canadiens and the Bolts this season and the first at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning won 4-3 in overtime in their only previous meeting, way back in October, the second game of the season.