The Lightning had dropped four of their last six games, placing them right on the cut line of being in or out of the playoffs. The night before, the Bolts defeated Winnipeg 6-5 in a shootout but instilled little confidence in the fan base. In that win, Tampa Bay watched a three-goal, third-period lead to disappear, Winnipeg scoring four-consecutive goals to pull in front. Nikita Kucherov scored late to salvage at least a point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy made a couple key stops in overtime and a five-round shootout to secure two.
No one from the coaching staff to the players to the fans, however, felt good after that win. It felt dirty and tainted. It felt like a harbinger of upcoming doom.
The Bolts response: fear not.
Tampa Bay went into Pittsburgh and won convincingly in a building they had never before won in during the regular season and a city they hadn’t won in during the regular season in their last nine tries.
The Lightning followed a night later with a solid performance against Carolina, getting a timely goal from a struggling power play and elite-level stops from their All-Star goalie Ben Bishop down the stretch to sweep the back-to-backs.
Today, the Lightning wake up tied with Boston for second place in the Atlantic but ahead of the Bruins based on their wins in regulation and overtime. And the Bolts are five points clear of ninth place, the top eight in the East starting to separate a bit from the teams chasing to get in the postseason like New Jersey (65 points), Carolina (64) and Philadelphia (63).
What magic elixir did the Bolts tap over the weekend? And did they bottle enough for the remainder of the season?
Three Things from a satisfying pair of wins ahead
For the second-straight year, the Lightning organization invited the players’ fathers to come along for a road trip and get a chance to be a part of their sons’ team for a few days. They ate breakfast and lunch with their sons. They watched the game together in a corner arena suite. After both victories, they celebrated together, either in the visitors’ locker room or nearby outside the team bus.
“That’s for me the cool part is that they get to see that and really be in the trenches with the guys,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
They were made to feel part of the team.
And they might have been the spark the team needed.
The Lightning won two games, beating a pair of desperate teams on their home ice. The Bolts scored four goals in each game. They held the opposition to two.
Last year, Tampa Bay produced a similar effort on the dad’s trip, falling 2-1 in overtime in St. Louis because of an unreal effort by Blues goaltender and First Star Brian Elliott and pulling out a hard-fought 5-3 win in Dallas.
Is there something to be said for wanting to play well in front of your family?
“I don’t see how it can’t,” Cooper answered. “You’ve got all the dads in the crowd, and especially the distance a lot of these guys came, we had so many of the European dads come on this. To have them all together, and then, there’s a lot of camaraderie with all the guys…there’s no doubt they get a nice little push.”
2. STAMMER TIME
On February 15, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announced the team would not trade Steven Stamkos, in the final year of a five-year contract, before the February 29 trade deadline.
Stamkos had been in a bit of a goal drought, the Lightning captain scoring just twice in the previous 12 games and ceding the Bolts’ goal-scoring lead to Nikita Kucherov.
Since that announcement, Stamkos has come alive, recording four points and three goals, tallying in each of the last three games.
Obviously, it’s impossible to know for sure whether one correlates to the other.
It is, however, worth pointing out.
Against Carolina, Stamkos scored the most important goal of the back-to-back set.
With a late third-period power play about to expire, Jonathan Marchessault dumped the puck in deep from the blue line, and Tyler Johnson chased it down behind the goal, centering in front for an open Stamkos in the slot.
An open Stamkos in the slot…Hold-your-breath words for any Lightning fan.
Stamkos blistered a wrist shot past Cam Ward, netting goal No. 301 of his NHL career and coming through for a beleaguered power-play unit.
“Sometimes you need a big goal like that, late in the third to take the lead to kind of get things rolling and get your power play going again,” Lightning wing Ryan Callahan said.
Stamkos also overtook Kucherov for the Lightning goal lead with his 25th of the season, moving one ahead of the Russian, who missed Sunday’s game with a lower-body injury and is day-to-day.
Once Kucherov returns, it should set up a nice, friendly goal battle between the two to see who can finish the season with the most.
That’s an intrasquad battle the Lightning will certainly benefit from.
3. GOING BACK TO CALLY
Ryan Callahan talked in the Lightning locker room following the Carolina win about finding his confidence again after going on long scoring droughts this season. Callahan went 22 games without a goal (Nov. 3-Dec. 26), scored against Montreal, then went on another 18-game stretch (Dec. 30-Feb. 14) without finding the back of the net.
But against San Jose, he converted a late first-period open chance in front to score the game’s opening goal. A game later versus Winnipeg, he set up two goals and converted the Bolts’ first shootout attempt.
Skip ahead two games to Carolina, and Callahan nets two more, putting the Bolts up 2-1 midway through the second period with an angled top-shelf shot from the right dot and adding an empty-netter in the final 10 seconds to seal the win.
Callahan has five points (3 goals, 2 assists) over his last four game.
“The confidence is definitely there again,” Callahan said. “It’s funny how that works sometimes, you get one…and you start rolling again. I haven’t changed the way I’ve played or anything like that, it’s a just a matter of capitalizing on some of the opportunities. Hopefully it’ll keep going.”
The recent production of Callahan, and Stamkos too, could be tied to their line combination. Since Cooper switched up the lines late in the St. Louis game, putting Stamkos at top line center with Callahan and Alex Killorn at wing while reuniting the Triplets on the second line, the top-line trio has appeared comfortable together, the familiarity the three have playing with one another showing in their increased offensive output.
“Last year, we played a really good chunk of the season together, so when they threw us back together, we kind of know where each other are and we know how we play,” Callahan said. “It seemed to click right away, and hopefully it keeps going.”