Two weeks ago when the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the NHL-leading Washington Capitals for the first of three meetings this season, the narrative revolved around how the Lightning were improved as a group but weren't necessarily seeing that better play translate into wins.
The 4-3 overtime loss to the Caps November 29 is a prime example.
The Lightning were up 2-0 in the contest and held a 3-1 lead entering the third period, but Washington's lethal power play got the Caps back on even terms and forced overtime, where Dmitry Orlov scored the game-winner.
Video: Pregame | Jon Cooper
That overtime loss was the second in three-straight defeats for the Bolts, who also dropped home matchups against St. Louis and Carolina that week. The Lightning felt like they played well for the majority of the game in all three losses but weren't getting the results they wanted or felt like they deserved.
Since then, however, the Lightning have been rewarded for their effort. They held possession for the majority of the game in an important Atlantic Division tilt against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday to leave Sunrise with a 2-1 victory. Two days later, they rallied from a one-goal deficit at home against the division-leading Boston Bruins and held on down the stretch for maybe their most impressive win of the year, a 3-2 defeat of the Bruins.
Tonight's game against the Capitals at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop) affords the Lightning another chance to see how their improved game stacks up against the League's top team.
"Results are key, but the process and the way we're playing, that's just as important, especially this time of the year," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "We know if we stick to what works and the way we play, we're going to have success down the stretch. But it's always fun to win hockey games, especially playing the right way too feels so much better. We just have to do that, and things will turn out well for us."
Playing a full 60-minute game has allowed the Lightning to pick up two-straight wins and victories in three of their last four games. In the aforementioned loss to Washington, the Lightning controlled play over the first two periods but slipped in the third, allowing the Caps to score three unanswered goals and escape with a victory. A night later at home against the Hurricanes, the Bolts failed to show up for the opening period and found themselves trailing 3-0 after 20 minutes. A furious rally over the final two periods was not enough to earn a result, the Lightning falling 3-2.
"Last two games have been 60-minute effort," Bolts forward Mathieu Joseph said. "From the first minute to the last, we battled. We protected our lead. We came back a little bit against Boston when we were down 1-0. We didn't collapse. We stuck to our plan. I really liked the way we played. I think if we play like that, we had some bounces before that when we played like that and it didn't go our way, but the last two games, it's good to see that 60-minute effort is giving us success."
The test for the Bolts tonight is to duplicate their effort from two weeks ago in D.C. - at least their effort from the first two periods - and continue that throughout the contest. Any letup or inattention to detail could punish the Lightning.
Video: Kevin Shattenkirk on the Washington Capitals.
"It's so hard to win in this League," Joseph said. "It can be some small details that can change a game, or if you're not playing well for five minutes and five shots go in for the other team, there's so many things that can happen. You have to be consistent in the way you play. I think the last two games we've been consistent. Now we have to put that behind us, see what we did well there and keep going and do that again tonight and the game after that. It's more the consistency of how we want to be as a team so we can eliminate those ups and downs that we've had so far this year."
Staying out of the penalty box will be key for the Lightning too against the Capitals, who possess one of the NHL's top power plays and maybe it's greatest power-play weapon in Alex Ovechkin.
"They're deep, so for me it starts with special teams, keep them off the power play, make them play the 5-on-5 game and hope we can match their depth with our depth," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said when asked how his team can make it hard on the Capitals. "I can throw every cliché at you, limit time and space, just go down the list but you've got to keep their big boys off the board, keep them off the power play and spend time in their end because the teams that have some gifted offensive players, in the end, they don't like to play in their end. And if you keep them in their end for a while, it'll just help us."