NHL’s top two teams meet as Lightning, Maple Leafs face off

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The NHL’s best team is getting even stronger on Thursday night when the Tampa Bay Lightning will welcome back starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Vezina Trophy finalist from 2017-18 hasn’t played in more than a month, while the Lightning still managed to go on a 12-3-0 run during his absence including the seven-game winning streak the team is currently riding into Thursday night. It’s a testament to how dominant the rest of the team around him is that they kept piling up wins at such a ridiculous pace.

His return comes at a perfect time for the Lightning and helps set up a titanic regular season matchup of Stanley Cup contenders when the Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As far as mid-December regular season games go, it doesn’t really get much more exciting than this.

[Related: Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s stretch of solid play]

The Lightning and Maple Leafs enter Thursday as the top two teams in the NHL, sitting first and second in total points, first and second in goal differential, first and second in goals scored, and are both among the top-10 in terms of fewest goals against. The two teams also boast six of the top-30 individual scorers in the league (including three of the top-seven) and that list doesn’t include Auston Matthews, one of the game’s elite offensive talents, who has 16 goals and 27 total points in only 17 games.

Tampa Bay’s offense has been especially dominant this season and is currently averaging an almost unheard of four goals per game. The last time an NHL team averaged more than four goals per game over an entire season was the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins with an average of 4.41. Only five other teams since then have been above 3.80 over a full season.

Only three teams over the past 25 years have scored more goals than Tampa Bay’s 130 through the first 32 games of a season: The 1995-96 Penguins, 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, and the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators.

The Maple Leafs are not far behind them with 113 goals (a 3.61 goals per game average) in their 31 games, and they have done that while only getting 20 combined man-games from Matthews and William Nylander, two of their top-three leading scorers from a year ago.

That all brings us to the next big thing regarding Thursday’s game as both star-laden rosters are starting to get back to full-strength.

While the Lightning are getting Vasilevskiy back on Thursday, the Maple Leafs recently welcomed Matthews back to their lineup after he was sidelined with an injury and also have Nylander starting to make an impact after he missed the first quarter of the season due to an unresolved contract issue. The only key player for either team that isn’t playing on Thursday night is Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman.

It’s also a pretty massive game for what it means to the Atlantic Division playoff race because a Lightning win would extend what is already a pretty significant lead.

If the Lightning end up taking this game in regulation it would extend their lead in the Division (and also the lead for the top spot in the Eastern Conference) to eight points. Even if it’s only the middle of December that would still be a significant lead and a gap that would be extremely difficult for any team to make up — even one as good as Toronto. A Maple Leafs win in regulation cuts the gap to four. That is a massive swing one way or another.

If nothing else, this game is a great preview for a potential early playoff matchup.

Barring some sort of second half collapse from either team they have established themselves as the top teams in the Atlantic Division and look like strong bets to finish at least in the top-three, with Tampa Bay positioning itself well for the top spot. Assuming all of that happens, and assuming both teams take care of business in their opening round matchups where they will almost certainly be favored, they would be meeting in the second round. There is a lot of hockey to be played before it gets to that point, and a lot of things still have to happen, but on paper it’s an exciting matchup to think about and we will get to see our first preview of what it might look like this season on Thursday night.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.