TAMPA, Fla. -- December divisional matches rarely register high on the hype meter around NHL circles.
But make no mistakes, when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, plenty of eyes will be peering in to see what happens when the top two teams in the league faceoff for the first of four meetings this season.
Tampa Bay has won seven consecutive games and 10 of the past 11 to open-up a six-point lead on Toronto in the league and Atlantic Division standings. The Lightning are the highest scoring team in the league with 128 goals while averaging a league-best 4.00 goals per game. The Maple Leafs are second in goals scored with 113 while averaging 3.65 per game, third best in the league.
Both teams are well aware that this meeting may not be just any other mid-season matchup.
"They're setting the standard for the National Hockey League and we'd like to be where they're at," Toronto head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet.ca. "We want our young guys to get the experience quicker so that we can be a good playoff team quicker, but in the meantime, we've got to win regular season games."
The two teams appear to be on a collision course for a playoff meeting in April, with the current playoff format all but guaranteeing a second-round meeting if the standings remain the same at the end of the regular season.
So it's never too early to want to send any kind of a message in a game that figures to feature more energy and buzz than normal in a pre-Christmas matchup.
"Potentially you could see them down the road," Maple Leafs' center Nazim Kadri told the Toronto Sun. "We're going to give them all the credit in the world but we want to go in there and beat them."
Tampa Bay could see the return of Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been out since Nov. 14 with a fractured foot. Vasilevskiy took part in the full practice on Wednesday, a day after Eddie Pasquale was reassigned to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper did not say Vasilevskiy would start against Toronto, but he didn't say he wouldn't either, even with some hesitancy in throwing the team's top netminder back in the crease after a month-long absence.
"It's not as much the injury as it is the cardio and how he's feeling in that respect," Cooper said. "I'll sit down with him in a little bit and see how he feels, but he looked good out there (at practice)."
Louis Domingue, who has started 13 of the 14 games in Vasilevskiy's absence, has won six consecutive games and posted an 11-2 record in that span.
No matter who is in goal for Tampa Bay, however, it's more about how the team plays in front of the net, more than anything else.
"The more we can distance ourselves from the team behind, the better," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "(Thursday's) going to be a tough game, we know that, probably the toughest one of the year. We need our A-game."