By Santosh Venkataraman
Columbus (38-28-6) at Tampa Bay (23-33-16), 7:30 p.m. EDT
TAMPA, Florida (AP) -- If the Columbus Blue Jackets reach the
playoffs for the first time, a big reason will be their play
against the Eastern Conference.
The Blue Jackets look to take advantage of their final game
versus an East team Tuesday night when they try to hand the
lowly Tampa Bay Lightning a seventh straight home loss.
Columbus (38-28-6) is closing in on its first postseason berth
in the franchise's ninth season, as it sits in sixth place in
the Western Conference.
The Blue Jackets have had trouble against the West, going
25-25-3, but are 13-3-1 versus East foes. Those 27 points tie
Columbus with San Jose for the West's highest total against the
East, but the Sharks have finished playing their 18 games
outside the conference.
Blue Jackets rookie Steve Mason leads the West with a 2.23
goals-against average, and he's been even better against the
East. Mason is 12-1-0 with a 1.06 GAA versus East teams - 5-0-0
on the road.
Mason had 22 saves and Columbus pulled off a dramatic comeback
Saturday to stretch its winning streak against the East to five
games in the opener of this two-game road trip. The Blue Jackets
scored three goals in the final 2:46 - two from Raffi Torres -
to stun Florida 3-1.
"This is huge right now," Torres said. "It shows a lot about our
team. We just kind of stick with it. We're learning now how to
Torres scored twice to give Columbus the lead and Antoine
Vermette added an empty-net goal to seal the win. Vermette has
five goals in seven games for the Blue Jackets since being
acquired from the Ottawa Senators, with whom he had nine goals
in 62 games.
"Look, we've been leaning on the same guys game in and game out,
and some other guys came through tonight," Columbus coach Ken
Hitchcock said. "And I think that's what good teams do, you get
new heroes. That's exactly what happened today."
Tampa Bay (23-33-16) had its home skid reach six with a 4-3
shootout loss to Atlanta on Saturday. The Lightning dropped to
3-10 in shootouts as they missed all three attempts.
Steven Stamkos scored twice and had one of two power-play goals
for the Lightning, with Vinny Prospal getting the other. The
power play has been a bright spot recently, with Tampa Bay
converting on 32.1 percent (9-of-28) of its chances over the
last six games.
Stamkos has four goals in the last three contests, three coming
with the man advantage. The problem for the Lightning is they
aren't getting much offense from anyone else.
"We're not getting balanced scoring right now, so that's kind of
tough on the team," interim coach Rick Tocchet said. "You have
to rely on basically one line all the time."
The Lightning allowed two power-play goals Saturday and have
yielded 73 on the season - second-most in the NHL. Columbus,
though, owns the worst power-play unit in the league, converting
at 12.5 percent.
The Blue Jackets won last season's meeting with the Lightning
5-3 at home to improve to 3-4-0 with one tie in the all-time
series. Columbus star Rick Nash has not scored in five career
games versus Tampa Bay.