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Bolts aim to improve on impressive first half

In their first two practices back from the All-Star break, the Lightning emphasized consistency and attention to detail

by Bryan Burns /

When you've won 37 out of 49 games, lead your division by 14 points and are on pace to finish the regular season with more points than any team since 1995-96, there aren't too many areas to improve upon.

That's where the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves as they enter the second half of the season, starting with Wednesday's game in Pittsburgh against the Penguins.

The Lightning lead the NHL in nearly too many categories to keep track of, but let's try anyway. The Bolts top the league for wins (37), points (76), ROW (34), points percentage (.776), goals (196), goals per game (4), goal differential (+59), power-play percentage (29.5%), home wins (20), home points (40), home goal differential (+43), home points percentage (.800), road wins (17), road points (36), road goals (90) and road points percentage (.750).

Got all that?

Individually, the Lightning are almost as dominant. Nikita Kucherov paces the NHL for scoring, assists and power-play points. Brayden Point was the first player in the league to put up 30 goals and 30 assists when he netted his 30th goal January 17 versus Toronto. Steven Stamkos has been on a goal-scoring tear of late and ranks tied for second in the NHL for goals since December 1. And Andrei Vasilevskiy ranks second in the league for save percentage (.925) and tied for fifth for wins (20) despite missing a month of the season with a fractured left foot.

Video: Asst. Coach Derek Lalonde | Post-Practice

Certainly, the first half of the season for the Lightning has gone just about as well as the team could have reasonably expected.

But they're not satisfied with their current position, players and coaches alike say. Sure, they like the way they've been playing, but there's still a higher level for them to achieve. That's where their focus will lie when they pick back up again in Pittsburgh and beyond: becoming an even better, more cohesive team, one that opponents will have even more difficulty figuring out how to defeat.

One area the Lightning would like to see improvement, defenseman Ryan McDonagh said, is in their consistency within games. Tampa Bay has shown resilienc this season finding multiple ways to win contests, whether by rallying from a deficit, scoring in bunches to overwhelm opponents or relying on special teams to prevail.

The challenge, McDonagh said, is to remain consistent throughout so that resilience isn't needed every night.

"You're not going to play a perfect three periods every time, but the periods where maybe it's not going as well for us or we aren't clicking on all cylinders, we don't want to get hurt," he said. "We don't want to give up a lot of chances. Maybe we don't generate as many chances in those kind of periods, but at least we're defending well and keeping the chances against low. I think that's where we've got to find some consistency in our game as far as the defensive side goes."

Attention to detail is another area where the Lightning would like to get better assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. The Bolts utilized their two practice sessions coming out of the bye week sort of like a mini camp. They broke details of the game down in meetings and video sessions and used practice as a chance to reinforce those details, repeating them to the point they become almost second nature.

"There's going to become a point coming down the stretch we want you coaching yourself," Lalonde said. "We want everything to be instinctive. We don't want questions on detail with our neutral zone structure. We don't want questions within our face-off alignments or assignments. What you see is natural. We want things to be fast and natural. We said these two days were going to be about attention to detail, and that's what we worked on."

The Lightning are expecting a dog fight every time they take the ice the rest of the regular season. Such is life when you're at the top of the NHL standings, five points ahead of second place Calgary currently with two games in hand.

But in receiving every opponent's best shot, the Lightning can also become a better team Lalonde believes.

"It's challenging," he said. "We get the teams' best every single night, and it's human nature. I think it makes us better. We have to be at our best or we're going to be in trouble. You saw, we were in New York, we weren't ready to play against the New York Islanders. They brought their best, and before we knew it, it was 3-0. I think that's the challenge every night. We'll see it in Pittsburgh on Wednesday and obviously we'll see it in New York on the weekend."

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