Preview: Lightning at Avalanche, Game 61

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay (34-21-5) are coming in on the second game of a back-to-back after defeating the Stars 4-2 on the road last night. Colorado (38-17-5) will be facing a tired team for the second game in a row. Tonight is the third annual Military Appreciation Night.

Many consider the Tampa Bay Lightning to be the Colorado Avalanche of the East. After finishing with one of the worst records in 2013, they axed head coach Guy Boucher (who now coaches Switzerland's SC Bern) in favor of Jon Cooper. This season under Cooper, the Bolts have surged from lottery team to playoff-bound and their young guns have been instrumental to their success. Indeed, if the Avs boast one of the most impressive rising forward groups in the NHL, the Lightning aren't far behind: Tyler Johnson (23-years-old), Ondrej Palat (22), Vladislav Namestnikov (21), and Nikita Kucherov (20) all project to be future impact players, to say nothing of Steven Stamkos who is still only 24. On defense, there is Victor Hedman. Last night against Dallas, Hedman notched his 100th career assist. The first milestone of many for the young talent who continues to improve. He has developed (and continues to develop) into a smart decision-maker in his own end with the necessary puck skills to push the play forward. With a core like this, expectations are high in Tampa going forward - and I haven't even mentioned their prospect pool, which includes highly promising names like Jonathan Drouin and Slater Koekkoek. Stevie Y is still getting it done and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Bolts in a Stanley Cup series sooner rather than later.

In their last meeting on Jan. 25, the Lightning schooled the Avs 5-2 thanks to Tyler Johnson's hat trick. However, it should be noted that the unseasoned Sami Aittokallio was in net at the time. He was pulled after two periods - a decision I didn't agree with at the time. Still, with Semyon Varlamov in net, tonight will be a much better barometer for seeing how the Avs fare.

Our #1 D-man Erik Johnson is slated to make his return after serving two games for his boneheaded slash on the Islanders' Frans Nielsen. Losing EJ was a huge reminder that something must be done to Avs' shallow blueline if they want to be taken seriously in the long-run. As shown during his time with the Quebec Remparts, Coach Roy is not afraid to pull the trigger on a trade. Will he decide to make one within the next few days or will he wait for the offseason?

Young vs. Old? Tonight's affair features two players on fire. One is 18. The other is 38. Nathan MacKinnon (22G, 25A) is riding a 10-game point streak and is looking more and more confident each game. Marty St. Louis (27G, 31A) has had four goals in two games, but the big story is the potential for a deadline deal. Here are a couple of bites from Darren Dreger:

"Teams may continue to call TBay on St Louis, but, as of now, Lightning are telling teams St Louis is locked on the New York Rangers."

"This dialogue between TB & the Rangers regarding St.Louis has been going on a long time."

Semyon Varlamov is expected to start for Colorado. After a disappointing exit during the knockout round in Sochi, Varly looked sharp against Phoenix on Friday.

As of this writing the starting goalkeeper for Tampa is not confirmed. The red-hot Ben Bishop had to work last night, making 39 saves in a 4-2 victory against Dallas. With Anders Lindback out (ankle), it is possible that Kristers Gudlevskis starts. Gudlevskis was the goalie who impressed with 55 saves in Latvia's 2-1 loss to Canada at Sochi. Still, Coach Cooper would prefer to use Bishop if he's feeling up to it:

"We'll see tomorrow. I know it's a back-to-backer, but we have some time, so we'll see how he is in the morning."

Last but certainly not least, tonight is the third annual Military Appreciation Night. Special festivities are planned, but for those who can't make it in person the Avs are holding a contest that viewers at home can participate in. Details here. Keep in mind that anything you tweet (or post on Instagram) with the hashtag #AvsMilitaryNight has a chance to be featured on PepsiVision (aka the new jumbotron).

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
When: 6 PM MT / 8 PM EST
TV: Altitude, Sun Sports

Check out Raw Charge for opposition coverage.

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