The Tampa Bay Lightning have long been out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos are still in a race of their own.
Either one could win the Art Ross Trophy in the season finale Saturday night when the Lightning try to extend their point streak over the league-worst Florida Panthers to nine.
The Lightning (18-25-4) will miss the playoffs for the second straight season despite a 6-1-0 start that was Tampa Bay's best since 2003-04. The club's fortunes went downhill quickly after that, eventually costing Guy Boucher his job late last month.
With everything that's gone wrong with the team of current coach Jon Cooper - Tampa Bay lost 2-0 to Boston on Thursday in its latest contest - the solid play of St. Louis and Stamkos has been a constant. With his seventh career hat trick in a 5-2 win over Toronto on Wednesday, St. Louis improved his league-best point total to 58.
Stamkos, who has 29 goals and trails Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead with 32, could prevent St. Louis from winning his first scoring title since 2004 - the only time a Lightning player has won the Art Ross Trophy. Stamkos is tied with injured Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby with 56 points, while Chicago's Patrick Kane and Ovechkin are also in the mix for the trophy.
Stamkos had an eight-game goal streak before being held off the scoresheet in a 3-2 shootout home loss to Florida (14-27-6) on April 2. St. Louis' seven-game point streak in this series also ended that night as the Panthers' season-best third straight victory ended an 0-4-3 slide against Tampa Bay.
Florida, though, has dropped a season-high five straight on the road since that matchup. The club clinched the worst record in the league with a 4-0 home loss to Toronto on Thursday.
"That stinks, when you're at the bottom of the pile,' coach Kevin Dineen said. "But that is the brutal reality of our situation and it's something we have to sit on for four months. ... I think it's going to be a long summer.'
The Panthers will have the best chance to secure the No. 1 overall pick when the draft lottery takes place Monday. Jonathan Huberdeau, the team's third overall pick in 2011, has been one of the few bright spots for Florida this season and has a chance to become the first Panther to win the Calder Trophy.
Huberdeau is tied for second on the club with 14 goals and is in a tight race for the rookie scoring title.
Lightning rookie center Alex Killorn has two goals and two assists in three games versus Florida.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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