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TAMPA, Fla. — A potential Stanley Cup Final preview will be on display Sunday as the league-leading Nashville Predators visit the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A late-season surge by the Predators has them in front in the chase for the Presidents’ Trophy. Tampa Bay occupied that spot for most of the season before a mini-slump late in the season and is three points back.
Nashville, coming off a 7-4 loss at home to the NHL-worst Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, continues to pace the league with 111 points, running off a 16-3-2 record since Feb. 19 to bypass the Lightning in the standings.
The Boston Bruins, who play at Philadelphia on Sunday, is two points behind the Predators and one ahead of Tampa Bay with a game in hand on both teams.
“That’s a huge game (Sunday) obviously,” Nashville center Austin Watson told The Tennessean. “Everybody knows that. It’s a great opportunity for us to bounce back. I don’t know how much we’ll look at this, or we’ll just look to Tampa. That’s up to the coaching staff. We’ll do what we’ve got to do to get our minds right.”
The Predators want to quickly put the loss to Buffalo behind them and avoid back-to-back regulation losses for the second time second time in the past 21 games.
“We have to get our stuff together, last four games we need to play hard, play much better than we showed,” Nashville center Mike Fisher told Predators’ television network following the loss to Buffalo. “Good thing is we have a big game (Sunday), and we have to get back at it and play our hockey. We still have a lot to play for, we have to show it.”
The Lightning, meanwhile, have not only dropped out of the top overall spot in the league standings, they now trail Boston for the top overall spot in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings with a 4-5-0 record in the past nine games.
While getting back on the right side of the ledger is something for Tampa Bay to focus on in the final four games, there are other areas the team is looking at as well.
“I think we are focusing on some little things here and there,” Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. “Obviously we are in a funk and in a little groove right now we are trying to get out of, but we will. I think once playoffs start it’s a completely different thing and it automatically elevates wherever you are, and I have a lot of faith in our team and our group, so I’m not too worried about there.”
Chasing down Boston is on the Lightning’s agenda heading down the final week of the season and is in the middle of a stretch of four emotionally charged games, including the matchup with Nashville. Tampa Bay hosts Boston on Tuesday.
“We have gone in to a little bit of a lull since we clinched,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “I think these upcoming games, they bring the emotions out, especially with the distance in the standings between us and Boston and what it has been. You don’t know how these games are going to turn out but I would expect our guys to be fully invested for sure.”
It will also be an expected matchup between Vezina Trophy favorites with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne likely facing Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Rinne has jumped to the forefront as the favorite thanks to a 22-3-1 run in which he has posted a 2.02 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in his past 26 starts. He enters Sunday with an overall record of 41-11-4, a 2.25 GAA, .929 save percentage and league-leading eight shutouts, but was victimized for six goals by Buffalo.
Vasilevskiy was the runaway leader at the All-Star break and though he leads the league with 42 victories, which is a single-season franchise record, he has seen his GAA blow up to 2.60 after giving up three or more goals 15 times in 21 starts since the All-Star break.