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Lightning in Vancouver for Rare Visit with the Canucks

January 1, 2014, 2:12 PM ET [137 Comments]
Michael Stuart
Ottawa Senators Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Two of the hottest teams in the league are set to battle tonight at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, as the Tampa Bay Lightning have made the long trip North for a rare visit with the Canucks. After closing out 2013 with two straight home losses, Tampa is looking for its fourth straight road win in an attempt to start 2014 on the right foot.

It might be easy for a casual fan to take one glance at the standings and assume that the Lightning are better than the Canucks, but that would be a foolish thing to do. While the Bolts do sit third in the Eastern Conference and comfortably in a playoff spot thanks to a 23-12-4 record, the Canucks actually have more points despite the fact that they sit sixth in the West. It’s a testament to how tough the competition is out West, and specifically in the Pacific Division.

Ignore the standings and just know that John Tortorella, a familiar face for Lightning fans, has his Canucks playing some good hockey right now. I’m of the opinion that he’s extracted as much out of that roster as anybody possibly could have to start this season. Like Jon Cooper in Tampa, Tortorella has had to deal with a number of key injuries and roster issues. As the team’s record shows, he’s managed quite nicely.

Speaking of injuries, both Ryan Malone and Eric Brewer have been cleared to play for the Lightning this evening. Cooper said yesterday that they would be game time decisions. I’m not going to speculate on Malone’s return, but I would be very surprised if Brewer didn’t suit up. The Lightning have missed his calming presence on that third pairing in a big way.

One player who won’t be ready to go tonight is Sami Salo. Lightning fans know him as a veteran guy who has helped Victor Hedman and other young Bolts immensely. Canuck fans know him as a guy who suited up for 566 games in Vancouver as one of the league’s most underrated all-around defensemen. It’s a shame that he won’t be ready to go tonight, as he most certainly deserves a nice standing ovation from the Rogers Arena faithful. Hopefully there’s a next time.

In addition to Salo, Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness is also making his return to Vancouver after a handful of successful years behind the Canucks' bench.

As mentioned, the Canucks are also dealing with some pretty serious injuries. In addition to defenseman Ryan Stanton, who has been one of the league’s more pleasant surprises so far this year, the team is missing Alex Burrows, Alex Edler, Jordan Schroeder, and starting goaltender Roberto Luongo. According to various reports, the injured players (minus Ryan Stanton) all skated this morning. With Luongo injured, Eddie Lack is expected to get the start in net tonight for Vancouver. In limited action, the Swedish goaltender has compiled a 1.84 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage; he’s been fantastic. I recently tweeted out that he’s quite possibly the most likeable athlete in all of sport. It’s just hard not to cheer for him, but I’ll try not to tonight.

With all that injury talk out of the way, let’s look at some guys who are going to dress in tonight’s contest. For Vancouver, Mike Santorelli has been unbelievably good since signing a league-minimum contract back in the summer. It’s not just the fact that he’s compiled 27 points in 41 games; he’s a tireless worker, a game-breaker, and, perhaps most importantly, he’s a guy who has shown chemistry on Ryan Kesler’s wing. On a Vancouver club that has really been a one line show for the last couple seasons, that’s a welcome development.

It goes without saying, but the Lightning will also need to be wary of the Sedin twins. There isn’t a line on Tampa’s roster that will be able to out-cycle the twins or out-think them. They see the game like few in the world do. The Sedins epitomize the fact that Vancouver doesn’t like to give up the puck easily. What does that mean? It means the Bolts are going to have to beat them the same way they’ve beaten other great Western Conference players this season. Speed. As impressive as the Canucks have been this year, there is no way that they can out-skate this young Lightning team. I’m sure Jon Cooper has stressed this to his team already, but the Bolts must be first to pucks all night long. It’s a tough way to play, but the only way to win tonight.

While nothing has been officially announced, Ben Bishop will likely get the start in net for the Bolts. He’s looking to build on what has been an incredible start to 2013-14. If the league was handing out trophies today, it’s my opinion that he’d be in the conversation for both the Vezina and the Hart. Since Steven Stamkos went down with a broken tibia, Bishop has put the Lightning on his shoulders and carried them to victory night in and night out. It’s been a treat to watch.

Out-of-conference games are often viewed as less significant than divisional games or in-conference games. Tonight might be an exception. After closing out 2013 in less than spectacular fashion, the Bolts need to get back to what made them successful as soon as possible. The team can’t let back-to-back losses turn into a losing streak. Marty St. Louis has talked about rebuilding the ‘identity’ they had just a few weeks ago. That most certainly needs to happen.

I hope you all had a fantastic New Year’s Eve. As for you, Riley…I’m just hoping that you’re still alive.

Enjoy the game tonight, folks.

As always, thanks for reading.
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