NHL

Injury-riddled Lightning keeping keen eye on Panthers

TAMPA, Fla. -- The injury-ravaged Tampa Bay Lightning host a key late-season matchup against the in-state rival Florida Panthers with playoff chase ramifications.

The two teams enter Saturday's meeting looking to gain ground in the race for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Lightning, who are riding a 9-2-3 stretch that has pulled them back into the chase, are facing the possibility of playing the game without three of the team's top centers. Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette all left Thursday's game against Minnesota after sustaining left leg injuries.

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While all three are officially listed as day-to-day by the team, none were on the ice for practice on Friday. Johnson and Namestnikov were seen around the locker room while receiving treatment, though Paquette, who appeared to suffer the worst injury of the three, was not seen around the arena.

Those injuries forced lines to be shuffled around for Tampa Bay heading into Saturday and leaves the team with just 11 healthy forwards -- one of which is defenseman Luke Witkowski, who has played wing the past three games.

No matter who suits up, the Lightning are prepared for an important game.

"If there's one thing we've all been around, it's injuries," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "They are part of the game and you keep moving on. You hate to see anyone get hurt, you do, and you hate to see you lose teammate. But there are still games to be played, there is a playoff position we are fighting for and the focus can never be taken off of that."

Veteran defenseman Braydon Coburn said it's important to make sure everybody is doing the job assigned to them with what expects to be a bit of a fractured lineup for Tampa Bay.

"It's important for us to play our systems and play together and make sure there is a tight, cohesiveness among our units that go out there," Coburn said. "Make sure everybody is working together. Those three guys are important players on our team, but we have the collective group to pick up the slack."

While Tampa Bay has been climbing up the standings late in the season, the Panthers have been sliding the other direction.

Following Friday's 7-4 loss to Minnesota, Florida has just one victory in the past eight games, going 1-6-1 since sweeping a five-game road trip from Feb. 11-20. After climbing to third in the Atlantic Division standings with the five-game winning streak, the Panthers have fallen to 12th in the conference, six points out of the final playoff spot.

"It was a good battle but they got seven on us so that's terrible and there's not much to say," Jonathan Marchessault told the Miami Herald. "Our whole season, right now, has been a disappointment. ... At this point of the year, time is limited. We have less games, we need to turn this boat around."

The types of mistakes the Panthers made against the Wild -- Florida had two one-goal leads -- could prove detrimental to their playoff chances.

"We did some good things but we did some things which are costly this late in the season," Keith Yandle told The Herald. "The things we did will hurt you and they did tonight. When you give up as many goals as we did, you can't be happy."