Neutral zone key tonight in Tampa

For our analysis of the trade for Kris Versteeg, click here.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Peter Laviolette is not a big believer in the term “statement game” or even the term “measuring stick,” though it has been thrown around his locker room quite a bit.

With a 13-4-0 record since Jan. 1 and first place in the Eastern Conference, it’s hard to have a measuring stick game against a team below you in the standings.

“Measuring sticks,” Laviolette said, “Are when you are the 10th place team in the West and you go and play the first team in the East. Measuring sticks are when you see how you stack up against a team that’s done well.”

So while tonight’s matchup with the Lightning at St. Pete Times Forum may not be a measuring stick, there is certainly no lack for motivation against a team the Flyers have not beaten this year.

And newly acquired forward Kris Versteeg is expected to be in the lineup.

“The fact that we haven’t put a win in the column against them,” Laviolette said, “That should motivate us.”

“These guys have given us a hard time,” Danny Briere said. “That’s definitely the key game of the [four-game] road trip.”

Being the Flyers’ last matchup with Tampa Bay this year - and having been outscored 15-9 in the first three games - they don’t want to enter the playoffs having gone winless against a possible opponent.

“That’s still far away,” Briere said. “But I think it’s as close as you’re going to get to a playoff game. With the position we’re in, we have to find challenges. This is certainly one of the biggest we’ve had to face this year.”

Tampa Bay is the only team in the Eastern Conference the Flyers have not beaten at least once this season. Why?

Many point to general manager Steve Yzerman and the key acquisitions he’s made. Undoubtedly, Yzerman is a leading candidate for GM of the Year. But for my money, few coaches have done a better job than Guy Boucher.

Boucher has employed a unique style - which adds a wrinkle to the regular trapping style of old - that catches teams off-guard.

Matt Carle said that the Lightning even like to place a defenseman as far back as the hashmarks in their defensive zone to catch any pucks dumped into the zone. Tampa Bay tries to prevent the commencement of any sort of forecheck.

“They play a different style," Briere aid.

“It’s obviously their neutral zone forecheck," Carle said. “That’s definitely the weirdest thing about them, they sit back and they wait for turnovers. We’re at our best when we can make it tough on the opposing team’s defense, but it seems like we can never get in on them because of how much they sit back.

“I think the key for sure is to get an early lead, because it forces them out of their game. It’s not going to be perfect every time, so we need to stay patient.”

The Flyers fell in a big hole just two weeks ago in Tampa, when Sergei Bobrovsky allowed 3 goals on the first 6 shots of the game and the Flyers never even had a chance to break through the Lightning’s wall at center ice.

Tampa lulled the Flyers to sleep after that.

“Their game, whether they have the lead or not, is to sit back,” Laviolette said. “They’re an old style of team with their trapping and countering, but they do it almost a little different than they did a few years back. They try and get you to turn pucks over after the red line.

“We’ve really got to pay attention to what we do with the puck and make sure we’re in good position defensively.”

Lightning goaltender Dwayne Roloson said two weeks ago that he had one of the easiest times seeing the puck of any game this season - and it was against the Flyers. Laviolette mentioned the Flyers’ need to get back to basics, which could be one reason why they have only scored 8 goals over the last 5 games.

“Any time you put traffic in front of a goaltender, it makes it tougher,” Laviolette said. “You get second and third opportunities.”

For a team that has had little deal with in the way of adversity this season, Laviolette has been clamoring for a challenge for his players. He knows it is hard to get motivated for every game during a long season - especially when there is no sudden death for the losing team when the horn sounds.

He estimates that his team has played to about 70 percent of their capacity this season.

“There is another gear that we can go to,” Laviolette said. “When it’s do-or-die, it definitely brings out the best in you. We need to somehow shift into that gear, where you’re playing because you’re afraid to lose. I don’t think we played poorly [on Sunday], but in my opinion - and this may not be theirs - we outplayed the Kings.

We need to find another gear. We’re capable of finding another gear, I know that.”

Tonight, in Tampa, Laviolette has that challenge.

LINEUP DECISIONS: Brian Boucher is expected to start in net.

But with Kris Versteeg expected to be in the lineup, who will sit? Nik Zherdev was a healthy scratch on Sunday against Los Angeles. Jody Shelley and Dan Carcillo are the other likely candidates.

Zherdev, who has been a healthy scratch three times this season, has scored 3 points in his first games back in the lineup after being healthy.

“When a player comes out of the lineup, I think there’s things that they can do better,” Laviolette said. But that also means that there’s numbers waiting. You hope that they can push each other.”

Laviolette said he has noticed a change in Zherdev when he first comes back - but it usually doesn’t last.

“I’m not doing it to prove a point,” he said. “A lot of times, my decision is based more on the player going back in because they present a different element that may be missing in the lineup. And then you base it upon performance.”

The entire performance part of it will change when Versteeg pulls on his No. 32 jersey tonight.

For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers

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