TAMPA, Fla. — An early season battle of league titans takes place on Thursday when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Nashville Predators.
Tampa Bay and Nashville each enter the season with Stanley Cup aspirations. Both sit atop their divisions through the first month of action.
The Lightning ended October with a record of 8-2-1 and hold a plus-11 goal differential while sitting on top of the Atlantic. The Predators start November with a 9-3 record, plus-13 goal differential and a perfect 5-0 record on the road while leading the Central.
Nashville received a boost on Wednesday when reigning Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Pekka Rinne was activated off injured reserve and joined the team for the trip to Tampa. Rinne has missed five games since colliding with teammate Kevin Fiala during a game on Oct. 15. The Predators did not practice before leaving town, so there was no indication whether Rinne would start the game against the Lightning.
Backup Juuse Saros has been handling the load in Rinne’s absence, posting a 3-2 record with a 2.62 goal against average and .917 save percentage while starting all five games, including Tuesday’s 4-1 victory against Vegas.
“He’s carrying this team,” Rinne recently told The Tennessean. “He’s playing great hockey. He’s been doing an amazing job. First of all, we have a good tandem and a good relationship. It starts from there.
“At the same time, I feel really good when there’s bumps and bruises, you can take your time to heal.”
The Lightning, meanwhile, have picked up points in eight of the past nine games and come off an 8-3 trouncing of the New Jersey Devils as five different players recorded at least three points, led by Brayden Point who had a goal and four assists.
“Pointer just controls the game with his speed. He’s all over the ice,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. “He’s got the puck. He supports the puck. He’s on top of guys. He’s so tight defensively, and I think it frustrates offensive guys. When he gets the puck, he’s gone. He’s gone. He takes advantage offensively. He uses his speed to make space and chances for himself and his teammates.”
Tampa Bay continues to be without the services of Norris Trophy defenseman Victor Hedman, who will miss his third consecutive game with an undisclosed upper-body injury suffered on Oct. 26. But in his absence, the Lightning defense have chipped in on the offense. In Tuesday’s victory against New Jersey, Ryan McDonagh and Coburn combined for three goals and six points, with Coburn adding his second career multi-goal game and first since Oct. 31, 2009.
“We see his skill in practice and in the games all the time, so I don’t think we are too surprised to see him put the puck in the net,” Point said of Coburn.