tampabay.com

Panthers aren't pushovers

By TOM JONES
Published April 3, 2006


Despite losing a key game Saturday night in Sunrise to the Panthers, the Lightning can get it all back with a win tonight at home against Florida.

It would push the Lightning's lead back to eight points over the Panthers, with each team playing only seven more games. That means even if Florida won out, the most points it could get would be 91. With a victory, the Lightning would move up to 85 points and would need only six more (that's equal to a 3-4 record or even 2-3-2) to keep Florida from catching it.

Atlanta is only five points behind the Lightning, but plays a tough game at Ottawa tonight. A Lightning victory tonight combined with an Atlanta loss would give the Lightning a seven-point lead over the Thrashers.

But let's stop right here. A victory tonight is no guarantee. In fact, based on this season, it's unlikely. Simply put, the Panthers own the Lightning. Tampa Bay is 1-3-2 this season against the Panthers. If it had not been for an incredible four-goal comeback on March 20, the Lightning would be 1-4-1 against Florida.

Talk about lopsided. The Panthers and Lightning have combined to play 366 minutes, 31 seconds this season. The Panthers have either led or been tied for 327:26. The Lightning has been ahead for only 39:5.

"They've played well against us, but our problem has been falling behind these guys," center Brad Richards said.

Actually, that's been the Lightning's problem since the Olympic break.

In the 16 games since then, the Lightning has given up the first goal 10 times. In six of those games, the Lightning allowed the first goal within the first 21/2 minutes. Four times, it allowed a goal within the first 27 seconds. That's incredible and certainly not the blueprint for winning games.

Based on those numbers, it's quite remarkable that the Lightning is 7-8-1 since the break. Then again, if not for two shootout victories and another in overtime, the Lightning could very well be sitting at 4-9-4 since the break. That would put the Lightning at 80 points - only one ahead of Atlanta and two ahead of Florida.

Wouldn't that have set up a tense final two weeks? Then again, the way the Lightning keeps falling behind, especially against the Panthers, the final two weeks figure to be tense anyway.

BREAKING DOWN THE SCHEDULES: This week, the Lightning is home against Florida, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. It then travels to Florida and returns home for Atlanta. Next is a home-and-home series with Carolina before the season finale at home against Washington.

Atlanta's schedule looks tougher. Six of its remaining nine games are on the road. It plays at Tampa Bay twice and also travels to Florida twice, Ottawa and Washington. It has home games against Carolina, Washington and Boston.

Florida plays the Lightning in Tampa tonight and hosts it Sunday. It also has a difficult two-game trip to Toronto and Ottawa. The Panthers remaining games are at home: Atlanta twice, Pittsburgh, Washington.

THIS MIGHT SURPRISE YOU: With the Lightning scrambling to make the postseason, it seems like it has been a down season for it and goalie John Grahame .

But consider this: the Lightning needs one more victory to reach 40 for only the second time in its history. The other time was the Cup season of 2003-04 when it won 46.

The Lightning's current point total of 83, however, is fourth all-time behind 2003-04 (106), 2002-03 (93) and 1996-97 (88).

Meantime, Grahame's 28 wins are only two shy of Nikolai Khabibulin ' s club record of 30 set in 2002-03. Khabibulin won 28 during the Cup season. Daren Puppa won 29 in 1995-96, the first time the Lightning made the playoffs.