Two Eastern Conference foes will go head-to-head tonight in South Florida, as the Tampa Bay Lightning (8-5-2, 6th Atlantic) host the New York Rangers (8-6-2, 6th Metropolitan). Both teams come in having won their most-recent game, as they fight to get in the playoff hunt. Here is a preview for Thursday’s game, along with odds and a pick.
By the Numbers
Thanks to some big-time offseason additions, the Rangers offense has improved mightily from where it was a year ago. New York is eighth in the NHL in goals per game with 3.38, and has the third-best shooting percentage at 11.5. There has been a little bit of luck involved, as they’re still in the bottom-third in shots per game, but make up for it with the eighth-best power play. Defense is a whole different story. The Rangers allow the second-most shots on goal and are just 21st in goals allowed with 3.25. They also have a bottom-ten penalty kill, not ideal considering they are penalized more than all but two teams in hockey.
Last year the Lightning could do no wrong, but they have come back down to Earth this season. Still, they’re one of the best offensive teams in the NHL, ranking just ahead of the Rangers with 3.40 goals per game with the eighth-best shooting percentage of 10.7. They’re a middle-of-the-pack team in shots, but have the fourth-best power play to make up the difference. The strong power play is especially important when you consider Tampa Bay has one of the worst penalty kill units in hockey, stopping only 75 percent of man-advantages. They’re near the bottom in nearly every defensive category, including goals allowed (3.47, 25th) and shots allowed (34.7, 29th).
What to Watch
Even though the Lightning got off to a slow start, a trip to Sweden got Tampa Bay back on track. After back-to-back victories against the Sabres last week in Stockholm, the Lightning now prepare for 16 of their next 22 games at home. For the most part, Tampa Bay returns much of their team from last year, including leading scorers Steven Stamkos (5 g, 10 a) and reigning Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov (5 g, 8 a). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see them start to go on a run, beginning tonight against the Rangers.
Speaking of the Rangers, they’re finally starting to see a return on their young phenom Kaapo Kakko. The second overall pick of this June’s draft, Kakko scored two goals on Tuesday in an overtime win against the Penguins, and now has scored five of his six goals in the last seven games. With Mika Zibanejad sidelined, New York will need Kakko and All-Star Artemi Panarin to carry their offense against a high-scoring Lightning team.
Henrik Lundqvist will take a seat in favor of Alexandar Georgiev tonight. Georgiev is 4-3-1 with a 2.73 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Tampa Bay will counter with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is 6-4-0 with a 3.01 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Odds and Pick
The Lightning are heavy favorites tonight, listed at -255. With several days of rest and the advantage in net, it’s hard not to see how Tampa Bay loses tonight. I do expect there to be a number of goals in the game with both teams struggling on defense. But I’ll take the Lightning -255 to earn their third win in a row.