The Tampa Bay Lightning were 20 minutes away from a demoralizing loss in Edmonton to the last-place team in the Pacific Division and the team with the third-worst point total in the NHL.
The Lightning were down 2-0. Nothing was going their way. The offense was stagnant. A turnover in the defensive zone and a breakdown between blueliners led to two goals for Edmonton.
The Bolts appeared destined to their second-straight defeat to start a four-game trip out west.
And then the Lightning played perhaps their best period of the season, rallying from 2-0 down in the third to win 3-2. In Vancouver, the Lightning built off the momentum from the previous night’s finish and downed the Canucks in overtime to win both ends of a back-to-back set for the second time this season.
In 48 hours, the Lightning went from perilously close to falling well behind the pack in the Eastern Conference playoff chase to owning the last postseason spot.
So what changed for the Lightning? Where was the turning point?
We’ll examine that and more in today’s Three Things.
1. PUCK LUCK
Unlike last season’s Stanley Cup run, good breaks have been few and far between for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2015-16.
Whether it’s a soft, deflected shot from the point that gets through with 21 seconds left in regulation to fall 1-0 in Florida, going 1-for-10 on the power play in a 2-1 home loss to Vancouver or Montreal’s Dale Weise benefitting from an undetected goaltender interference to level the score in a game the Canadiens would win in a shootout, luck hasn’t really been on the Lightning’s side.
Maybe, however, the tides are starting to turn.
All three of the Lightning’s goals in their 3-2 rally in Edmonton hit an Oilers skater before going into the net. Steven Stamkos banked a shot off the foot of Darnell Nurse and past an unaware Cam Talbot for the game-winner with 4:09 to play.
The Lightning found good fortune again Saturday in Vancouver to sweep both ends of the back-to-back.
With the score tied 1-1 and a Lightning power play expiring, Valtteri Filppula fed the puck in front from the right faceoff dot, and the Canucks’ Alexander Edler deflected the puck into his own net with his skate.
Nikita Kucherov’s overtime winner was the result of catching the Canucks in a line change, Vladislav Namestnikov spotting Kucherov behind everyone and feeding him with a pass to start a breakaway.
Puck luck has been hard to come by all season for the Lightning.
They found it in spades in Western Canada.
2. THE GANG’S ALL HERE
The Lightning have been an inconsistent team all season, and much of that inconsistency can be attributed to the number of injuries to key players the Bolts have had to deal with through the first half of 2015-16.
With Ondrej Palat’s return to the lineup Jan. 2 versus Minnesota, however, the Lightning finally have all of their pieces back and playing. It should be viewed as no coincidence then the Lightning have also won three of their last four with everybody available.
“We’ve finally got healthy and some stability in our group, and it’s getting to a point where we’ve been a little fragile in the third period at time,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “But, now we are starting to put wins together where we are closing teams out in the third. You can see the confidence growing in our room with every period we play.”
With back-to-back wins Friday and Saturday, the Lightning moved into a tie with Ottawa for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
If the Lightning can stay relatively injury-free over the second half of the season, it should bode well for their ability to solidify a postseason spot while continuing to climb higher in the standings.
3. IN THE NIK OF TIME
In a year of inconsistent performances for the Lightning, Nikita Kucherov has been consistently spectacular this season.
Kucherov recorded at least a point in eight-straight games from Dec. 15 to Jan. 2, the Bolts’ longest point streak of the season. The Russian right wing has points in 13 of his last 16 games, scoring 10 goals and adding 10 assists over that stretch.
Kucherov leads the Lightning for scoring with 33 points. He’s second on the Bolts for goals (16) and assists (17).
On Saturday, he came through again for Tampa Bay.
Kucherov set up the game’s opening goal by receiving the puck in the right circle as he entered the zone, drawing the attention of three Canucks and dishing into the slot for a wide-open Alex Killorn, who used the time and space to get Vancouver goaltender Jacob Markstrom on his knees and maneuver around him to convert.
Later, with the game tied 2-2 in overtime, Kucherov used his speed to race past a tired Vancouver shift after receiving a stretch pass from Namestnikov in stride and calmly deposit the puck through the legs of Markstrom and into the net for the game-winner.
If naming an MVP from the first half of the season for the Lightning, one would be hard-pressed not to choose Kucherov.
Maybe only Ben Bishop has been more important to the Bolts in 2015-16.