March 01, 2015

Nikita Kucherov's value to the Tampa Bay Lightning has shown up during their best run in 12 years, while the Florida Panthers' last five games have further illustrated Aaron Ekblad's importance.

The rising Lightning can match a franchise record with an eighth consecutive win in Saturday night's showdown with a Panthers team bolstered by Ekblad's return.

Tampa Bay (26-17-4) has closed within three points of the Panthers' lead atop the Atlantic Division by recording its longest winning streak since an eight-game run from Feb. 23-Mar. 6, 2004, the year of the club's lone Stanley Cup championship. Kucherov has at least one point in each of those wins and scored in a third straight game during Thursday's 2-1 victory over Chicago, breaking a 1-all tie with a power-play goal in the second period.

The Lightning have received contributions throughout the roster during a stretch in which they've outscored opponents 26-14. They ended the Blackhawks' team-record 12-game winning streak behind a decided 33-18 advantage in shots.

"This might have been our best game all season," said defenseman Anton Stralman, who had the Lightning's other goal. "We played for 60 minutes, and we got rewarded for it. "This the way we want to play, honestly. This is how we can play, and it hasn't always been there."

Florida (27-15-5) helped the Lightning climb in the standings with a four-game skid that included a 3-1 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday, in which Kucherov scored twice. The 22-year-old has 10 points over the streak and 27 in 21 games since Dec. 5, second only to Chicago's Patrick Kane's 31 over that span.

Ekblad missed each of those defeats with a concussion, but returned with a goal to support Roberto Luongo's 27 saves in Friday's 4-0 win over the Blackhawks.

The Panthers have won 13 straight with Ekblad, a team-leading plus-19 this season, in the lineup, as well as both matchups with Tampa Bay this season in which he's played. The reigning Calder Trophy recipient had a goal in each, including one with 20.2 seconds left in a 1-0 win at BB&T Center on Nov. 16.

Reilly Smith and Quinton Howden have each scored in consecutive games for Florida, which totaled just five during its 0-3-1 stretch.

''I thought we came out and played a sound game, good defensively, really skated, really moved the puck," coach Gerard Gallant said. "We have to play our best game and that brought the best out of us (Friday), playing that team.''

Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop has allowed only four goals in winning four straight starts. The All-Star made 17 saves against Chicago and 26 in Sunday's victory over Florida.

Luongo, who'll join Bishop on the Atlantic Division team for the Jan. 31 All-Star Game in Nashville, owns a 1.96 goals-against average in three 2015-16 meetings with Tampa Bay. The veteran hasn't started on back-to-back nights all season, however, making Al Montoya Saturday's likely starter.

Montoya is 7-2-1 with a 1.85 GAA in 11 starts but is coming off his worst, a 20-save effort in Monday's 4-2 loss to Edmonton. The usually reliable backup had yielded one each in winning his five previous starts.

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