The Tampa Bay Lightning liked a lot of aspects of their game in the second half of Tuesday's 2-1 loss to the NHL-leading Boston Bruins.
It's the first half of that divisional loss that's troubling.
Boston came out as the aggressor from the opening puck drop and had the Lightning on their heels through the first 30-35 minutes in building a 2-0 lead. Slowly, the Bolts worked their way back into the contest, sparked by Yanni Gourde dropping the gloves against Joakim Nordstrom. Tampa Bay flipped the ice over the final 25 minutes, possessing the puck, hemming the Bruins in their own zone and keeping constant pressure on the Boston net.
The Bolts weren't, however, able to overcome the two-goal deficit.
Video: Preview | Lightning vs Canadiens
The Lightning have another divisional rival coming to AMALIE Arena tonight when they take on the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. puck drop), a team they're looking to sweep the regular season series from for the first time since 2014-15 and just the second time ever. The focus for tonight is starting on time and playing a full 60 minutes.
"It's been kind of a little bit of a tough run for us. I think we're seeing some positives in the past couple games," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "Not a great start against Boston but we kind of find our legs at the end of the second period. It's just about kind of fulfilling that throughout a full game, which has been tough for us. I think the last five minutes of that second period is how we have to start games. We're in our building, we kind of have to have different attitude coming into games."
The Lightning also can't allow an opponent to dictate how the game's going to be played, like Boston did Tuesday night. By being ready from the opening puck drop, the Bolts should be able to force teams to adjust to how they want to play.
"We're a little bit reactionary right now in the sense we were waiting to see what kind of Boston team we're going to get instead of imposing ourselves and being a team where they're wondering how they're going to adjust to us," Killorn said. "That's how we have to switch it."
Tampa Bay is firmly entrenched in second place in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning trail the division-leading Bruins by nine points but have a game in hand. Conversely, the Bolts own a nine-point lead over third-place Toronto with a game in hand and are 14 points ahead of fourth-place Florida. With 16 games remaining in the regular season, the chances of catching the Bruins for the Atlantic Division crown are dwindling. The fourth and final game of their regular season series in Boston will go a long way in determining whether the Bolts still have a chance to catch the Bruins.
But the Lightning aren't really in danger of having a team behind them in the Atlantic race overtake them either. The Lightning would have to lose most of their remaining games while one of those trailing teams got hot for that scenario to happen.
Video: Cooper on Bolts match-up with Canadiens
So for the remainder of the regular season, the Lightning's focus shouldn't be on where they are in the standings. It should revolve around rediscovering that defense-first mentality they displayed during 10-game and 11-game win streaks earlier this season. If the Bolts can get back to being a team that allows two goals or less each time they take the ice, that will make them a tough opponent to defeat come playoff time.
"If last year's playoffs proved anything, all four No. 1 seeds went out in the first round," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Regardless of where we all sat, we were all No. 1. You've just got to get in. For us, getting in is the big thing and whoever we play, it's who we play. But you have to give yourself a chance. We've given ourselves a chance with under 20 games to go. We made some acquisitions at the deadline. We really like what we've done. We've beefed up our team a little bit. Now it's just finding the chemistry down the stretch here and hopefully staying healthy. But where we finish it really doesn't matter to us."
The push for getting its game playoff ready against a team fighting to stay in the playoff picture will be a good test for the Lightning tonight.
For the most part, they've passed each challenge presented to them this season.
"I know our win losses haven't been where we've wanted of late, but we've been on a pretty good run and we've played some pretty darn good hockey so we know what we can do," Cooper said.