So far, the Lightning have responded well to the challenge.
Through the first five, the Bolts have gone 2-1-2. Included among the victories is a resounding win over Pacific Division leader Anaheim plus road points at St. Louis and Nashville, the top two teams in the Central.
“We know we’re playing tough opponents, and we’re not beating ourselves,” Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said following an optional morning skate Thursday for the Lightning. “We’re hanging in and we’re finding ways to get points, we’re finding ways to win games…We’re standing up for ourselves. We’re not getting beat up physically. We’re not getting manhandled out there. We’re playing our game.”
Tampa Bay played one of its best games of the season nine days ago in St. Louis to begin February but was unlucky to come away with only a point, losing 2-1 in overtime. The Lightning will try to finish the job against the Blues in tonight’s rematch at Amalie Arena.
“I thought we were the better team that night,” Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. “They snuck away with an extra point…This whole month so far, we’ve played the right way, and some of them have come out on the short end of the stick. We want to make sure we take care of what we need to do as a team, especially on home ice because they’re so few and far between this month for us.”
Following tonight’s matchup, the Lightning embark on their longest road trip of the season, five games in 10 days on the West Coast.
“With the exception of the first period against L.A., we’ve played pretty solid in the rest of the periods (in February),” Stamkos said. “…That’s a positive sign, and we’ve played some good teams. We’ve played in some tough rinks, so I think when you go through a stretch like this, I know we make a big deal out of it but it can give us some confidence as a group too to go through it and know that, hey, we’re where we are in the standings for a reason.”
Tampa Bay (74 points) remains in first place in the Eastern Conference and trails NHL-leading Nashville (78) by four. Montreal sits a point behind the Lightning in the Atlantic Division standings and hosts Edmonton tonight.
FEAR THE BOLTS
Although Tampa Bay has earned at least a point in six of its last seven games, Stamkos said the Lightning aren’t content with merely settling for a draw, even on the road against the best teams in the NHL.
“If we want to be a premier team in the league, we have to be able to win games against premier teams in this league,” Stamkos said. “For the most part, we’ve been in games, we’ve been getting a point, a couple of them we’re getting the two, but we want to be consistently getting the two points and beating teams.”
Stamkos doesn’t want to look at the upcoming schedule as a test for the Bolts to see how good they are or can be.
Instead, he wants other teams to view the Lightning as the test.
The Bolts have proven so far in 2014-15 they’re one of the best teams in the NHL and are tough to beat, especially on their home rink. He wants his team to move away from the underdog mentality and into one where his team is expected to win each time it takes the ice.
“For us in here, we’re a confident bunch because of the work ethic that we put in, the preparation that we put in, the structure that we play,” he said. “We know if we play that way, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to win every night. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to win every night, but as long as you give yourselves a chance, we’ll take that.”
With an upper-body injury to Cedric Paquette sidelining the center day-to-day, the Lightning recalled Vladislav Namestnikov from Syracuse on Wednesday.
Namestnikov has recorded three goals and four assists in 25 games so far this season with Tampa Bay. The Russian center last appeared with the Bolts January 15 against Edmonton.
“We want to make sure we’ve got three quality centermen,” Bowness said. “Namestnikov played very well for us early in the year, and you’ve got to be strong down the middle against these teams, particularly St. Louis…They’re very strong down the middle. They dominated the faceoff circle…We’ve got to do a better job there, and we’ve got to have strong centermen to matchup against them.”
Namestnikov started the season with the Lightning but was reassigned to Syracuse on December 3. He has nine goals and 15 points in 26 games this season for the Crunch.
“I played like 20, 25 minutes down there, so I think that helped a lot,” Namestnikov said. “I tried to work on things strength-wise and with my speed.”
Namestnikov, a 2011 first round draft pick (27th overall), has shuttled between Syracuse and Tampa Bay five times now with his latest recall, but Bowness said the constant back-and-forth hasn’t been an issue for the 22 year old.
“The up and downs comes with being a young player,” Bowness said. “There comes a point where it’s not going to happen because you don’t have to clear waivers. So, he understands the business side of it and he understands the position he’s in, but he’s got a great attitude and he’s going to play in this league a long time.”
Bowness said the team hopes to have Paquette back for Sunday’s road game in San Jose.