Lightning host Penguins in heavyweight showdown

NHL Hockey
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Two of the NHL’s top teams meet Thursday when the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Both have 71 points — trailing only Washington, Boston and St. Louis entering Wednesday — and both are humming right along.

Tampa Bay has won four in a row and five of six (5-0-1). Pittsburgh has won two straight and eight of 10 (8-2-0).

In their only meeting this season, the Lightning won 3-2 on Oct. 23 in Tampa, Fla.

The Lightning are predictably getting production from forward Nikita Kucherov (24 goals, 63 points) and Steven Stamkos (24 goals, 57 points). Stamkos has an eight-game point streak (seven goals, 13 points) and scored the go-ahead goal in the third period of Tuesday’s 4-2 win against Vegas.

Perhaps the bigger story for Tampa Bay, though, is the play of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He made 27 saves against the Golden Knights to extend his personal point streak to 16 games (14-0-2).

That tied him with Nikolai Khabibulin for the franchise record. Vasilevskiy can take over the team record with at least one point against the Penguins.

Stamkos said the goalie “has been huge. … We see the work that he puts in behind the scenes, but he’s getting rewarded now just because of how solid he’s been.”

Vasilevskiy was crucial Tuesday, as Tampa Bay otherwise was a little off in its first home game since Jan. 14, thanks to the All-Star break and six straight road games.

“Sometimes you play your best hockey and don’t get rewarded, and (Tuesday) it wasn’t our best, but we got the two points and we’ll take it,” Lightning forward Brayden Point said.

Tampa Bay defenseman Jan Rutta is expected to miss Thursday’s game after leaving in the first period Tuesday because of a lower-body injury he got when he was checked into the boards.

The Penguins have been hanging out in Florida all week, including a day off Tuesday to enjoy the weather. That was already planned, but it turned out to be a reward for their two wins coming off the All-Star break.

That included a 4-3 win Sunday at Washington, a staunch rival and the team the Penguins are chasing in the Metropolitan Division.

The Capitals played a bruising style against Pittsburgh, with 47 hits, but the Penguins have reached a place where they are confident they can take whatever any opponent dishes up.

“We’ve just got to make sure we play our game and don’t get caught up playing somebody else’s,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought we had plenty of push-back. We’ve got a team that plays with a lot of courage. We’re going to take hits to make plays.”

Pittsburgh could come back with goaltender Matt Murray, who made several key stops among his 29 saves against Washington, particularly in the third period.

“He was spectacular. Spectacular,” Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson said of Murray.

The team has fluctuated between Murray and Tristan Jarry, who began the season as the backup, and now seems to be in the mode of riding the hot hand.

–Field Level Media

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