Knights, Lightning get together for battle of top teams

TAMPA, Fla. -- The top two teams in the league come together for a midseason matchup on Thursday night when Vegas visits Tampa Bay.

This is the second meeting this season between Tampa Bay, which has the best record in the league, and Vegas, which surprisingly sits atop the Western Conference standings.

And if the second matchup is anything like the first, the game will be played at a high and entertaining pace.

When the teams met in Vegas in December, they pushed play with an aggressive defensive group that likes to join the rush, get in on the forecheck and be part of the offensive attack.

The Golden Knights won the game with less than three seconds left on a power-play goal by Shea Theodore.

"They play fast, they play the way we want to play," said Vegas leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault, who started his NHL career with the Lightning. "It's a tough building to come into, it's loud and they have great fans.

"They have a really good team and I think we have to be ready, for sure."

Vegas enters the game having lost consecutive games of any kind for the first time since Nov. 28-30. The Golden Knights have also scored just four goals in the past three games and are coming off a shutout loss in Nashville on Tuesday.

Head coach Gerard Gallant is not overly concerned about the lack of scoring, especially after getting 43 shots on goal against the Predators.

"I was happy. We played a great game (Tuesday). We just couldn't score on a great goaltender at the other end," Gallant said. "I hope we play like that on most nights because we played a helluva game. We just didn't win."

The Lightning are going to have to find a way to win without their leading defenseman, Victor Hedman, who was injured in Tampa Bay's final game before the bye week. The team diagnosed Hedman with an undisclosed lower body injury that will keep him out three to six weeks.

"He's tough to replace. ... I guess you could say he's really irreplaceable," Lightning center Tyler Johnson said. "He's that anchor on the blue line."

While Tampa Bay figures to give an expanded role to former first-round pick Slater Koekkoek, who has been in and out of the lineup on a regular basis this season. But the Lightning know there is no way to fill the void in Hedman's absence.

"Nobody in that room is Victor Hedman," Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. "So you can sit here and say everybody needs to chip in, and I guess they do, but it's not just the defenseman. It's everybody because he's a big part of our offense. We've just got to manage how we play the game."

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