The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the New York Rangers, the Lightning turned in one of their poorest efforts of the season.
On October 29 at Madison Square Garden, the Bolts and Rangers played to a 1-1 draw through two periods before New York erupted for three goals - part of four-straight markers for the Rangers after falling behind early in the first period - to soundly defeat the Lightning.
That loss might have been the low point of the young season for Tampa Bay. The Lightning were coming off an overtime defeat at home to the Nashville Predators. The loss to the Rangers was Tampa Bay's second defeat in a row. The Bolts would play an uneven game a night later against the New Jersey Devils but sneak out of the Prudential Center with a 7-6 overtime victory. Two nights later, they dropped a 5-2 decision to the New York Islanders, the Bolts third loss in four games, before finding their game in Stockholm, Sweden with a two-game sweep of the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL Global Series.
Video: Preview | Lightning vs Rangers
The Lightning are a different team this time around against the Rangers. They have a bit of their swagger back. Their mindset is where head coach Jon Cooper wants it to be.
Now, it's a matter of coming out tonight against the Rangers and proving that uneven performance at Madison Square Garden was an anomaly and not the norm.
"They're a good team. They're playing well. One of the more disappointing games I think for our group last time we faced them in New York," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "The effort wasn't great, and they kind of took it to us. We have to come back tonight and have a great game. It's easy for us to say we've come off this long road trip and the first game's always tough. That's an excuse. We're itching to play now. We haven't played for a few days now. We had a couple days off to get some rest and we're ready."
In that 4-1 defeat at New York, the Lightning gave up another power-play goal, allowing the Rangers to tie the game up in the second period, then surrendered the go-ahead goal with 7:14 to go. New York scored twice in the final 2:36 of the game to pull away, Tampa Bay wasting a superb effort from Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 38 of the season-high 41 shots he faced and kept the Lightning in the game until late with some top-notch saves under heavy pressure.
"We've got a pretty good feel for what they're about," Cooper said of tonight's opponent. "They're probably playing as well as they've played all year…The Rangers have a considerably different look than they had last year. I think that takes a little bit of time to kind of mold the new guys in. It seems like (Rangers head coach David Quinn) has got that going now. Hopefully we can have a bit better effort here at home than we did up in the Garden."
The Lightning will play at AMALIE Arena tonight for the first time since that overtime loss to the Predators on October 26. That's 19 days, nearly three weeks, since the Bolts have played a true home game (the second game in Sweden was technically a home game for Tampa Bay).
Video: Cooper on match-up with Rangers
The Lightning along with Minnesota have played the fewest home games to date in the NHL. But now the schedule starts to balance out as six of the next nine and 16 of the following 22 games for the Bolts will be contested at AMALIE Arena.
Now is when the Lightning can start to creep up in the standings after such a fragmented start to the season. Tampa Bay is the only team in the NHL with only 15 games played. Some teams have played as many as 20 games - Calgary paces the League with 21 games - meaning the Lightning's sixth-place position in the Atlantic Division currently looks worse than reality.
"Being away for two weeks is tough, but I'd say we made the most of it as a group and we got two big wins," Stamkos said of the wins in Sweden. "It doesn't just stay over there though. It's about coming together now. We've had a really difficult schedule. We see the record that we have after two weeks straight on the road, the majority of our games have been played away from here. I think we'll be pretty happy with the results. In saying that we've got to continue. I think we took a step forward on this last trip and we want to continue that."