Staring down the barrel of an arduous eight-game road trip that straddles NHL All-Star Weekend in Tampa, the Lightning face one more incredibly difficult test at Amalie Arena on Thursday night. The Western Conference-leading Vegas Golden Knights come to town looking to sweep the two-game season series. For the second time this season (and against a different team this time), the Lightning will play in a matchup between the league’s two best teams. Defeating the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center 3-0 back in December, Tampa Bay looks to establish itself once more as the most dominant team in the NHL.
In the first meeting of the season (and in franchise history) between the Lightning and Golden Knights, Vegas pulled off a dramatic last second victory over Tampa Bay. Thanks to a goal from Shea Theodore coming with just 2.3 seconds remaining in the third period, the Lightning fell to the Golden Knights 4-3 at T-Mobile Arena on December 19th. That night on the Strip was certainly not the worst performance of the season from the Lightning by any stretch of the imagination, but it proved to the Bolts that Vegas was certainly a force to be reckoned with moving forward.
Heading into Thursday’s matchup, the Lightning find themselves in unknown territory—the Bolts must play without defensive stalwart Victor Hedman. After leaving last week’s contest against the Calgary Flames — a game the Lightning would lose 5-1 — with a lower body injury, Hedman was soon ruled out for the next three to six weeks of play. While the full week of preparation should have helped the Lightning come up with a solid contingency plan, losing such a critical playmaker will make it difficult for the Bolts to compete with one of the Western Conference’s best attacks.
Not only did the Bolts lose Victor Hedman, they also lost depth forward J.T. Brown to waivers earlier this week. A true fan favorite on the team, Brown was claimed by the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday after he was waived from the active roster to make room for younger players that General Manger Steve Yzerman intended to rotate in and out of the lineup. While the Lightning lost a strong locker room presence, they now have the roster flexibility to give key prospects such as Adam Erne, Carter Verhaeghe, and Matt Peca playing time at the major league level.
With regard to the rest of the Lightning attack, the team is as strong as ever. Despite falling to second in the goal-scoring race, Nikita Kucherov remains the NHL’s scoring leader by an impressive margin with 60 points through 44 games. Fellow Lightning All-Stars Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy also have continued their excellence from early in the season as Stamkos ranks eighth in the NHL in assists while Vasilevskiy leads the league in Wins and has built a strong case to be this season’s Vezina Trophy recipient. So long as Tampa Bay can limit scoring chances for strong Vegas forwards James Neal, William Karlsson, and (former Lightning attacker) Jonathan Marchessault, they can allow for their high-powered offense to lead the team to victory and build momentum for the longest, toughest road trip of the season.