The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t let a six-day break from game action derail the momentum it had gathered in winning eight of their last nine games entering Wednesday’s crucial Atlantic Division tilt against the Detroit Red Wings.
Rather, the Lightning continued to surge, defeating the Red Wings 3-1, their first victory over Detroit in three tries this season.
And, they continued their rapid ascension up the standings.
By virtue of Wednesday’s victory, Tampa Bay took over sole possession of second place in the Atlantic, pulling out of a three-way tie with Detroit and Boston. If the playoffs were to begin today, the Lightning (60 points) would be the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They trail only Washington (74) and Florida (65) in the East standings.
Tampa Bay has won nine of its last 10 games and 10 of their last 12.
How were the Lightning able to remain hot following the weekend All-Star break?
Highlighting the top three reasons in today’s 3 Things.
1. HOME SWEET HOME
Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning had the best home record (32-8-1) in the National Hockey League. The Lightning set a new franchise record for home wins with 32, shattering the old mark of 25. Their home losses – nine, regulation and overtime combined – never reached double figures for the first time in team history.
But the Bolts’ success at Amalie Arena in 2014-15 never carried over into the current season. Through October, the Lightning were 2-3-0 at home. By the end of 2015, the Bolts continued to play sub-.500 hockey at Amalie Arena with more combined regulation and overtime losses (10) than victories (9).
At the time, the Lightning talked about the need to protect home ice, how their fans deserved it, how last season Amalie Arena had been a fortress and this season not so much.
Turns out, those weren’t just empty words.
Since the calendar turned from 2015 to 2016, the Lightning have been, well, unbeatable at Amalie Arena. Starting with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Minnesota Wild (Jan. 2), the Bolts have won seven in a row at home, tied with Chicago for the longest active home win streak in the league.
“I don’t really think we look at it as home or away,” said Tyler Johnson, who scored the game-winning goal versus the Red Wings on a second-period power play. “I think, if you look overall in the season, we’re a lot better now than we were at the start of the season, regardless if we’re home or away. We always talk about when teams come in to Tampa, we want them to be ready to have a good game. I think at the start of the season, teams were taking some liberties here. I think we’ve been better, but I think that’s overall play, not just at home.”
Within the current seven-game win streak, the Lightning have knocked off the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, Atlantic Division-leading Florida and, following Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over Detroit, the previous second-place team in the Atlantic.
Asked about their recent good fortunes at home, Ben Bishop smiled and knocked three times on the wood counter he was leaning against while fielding reporters’ questions following the Detroit victory.
“We’ve been playing well,” he said. “We have one of the best rinks and fans in the world. We feel pretty comfortable here. They come out and support us, so it’s nice to reward them with wins.”
That bodes well for the Lightning, who play five of their next seven games at Amalie Arena.
2. POWER PLAY COMES ALIVES
During his post-game press conference following Wednesday’s two-goal victory over Detroit, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said the difference in the game was special teams.
The Lightning went 2-for-3 on the power play versus Detroit.
The Red Wings were 0-for-2.
“I know they only had two power plays, but we kept them off the board and we came up with two (goals),” Cooper said.
Added Nikita Kucherov: “The power play was huge.”
With the score tied 1-1 in the second period, the Lightning got a chance to pull ahead when Tyler Johnson was tripped up by the Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk at the blue line on a rush into the zone.
The Bolts converted just 22 seconds later, Kucherov spotting Johnson all alone in the right circle and hitting him with a cross-ice pass. Johnson took a couple strides in from the dot and shot past Detroit goaltender Petr Mrazek to put the Bolts ahead 2-1.
Early in the third period, with the Lightning on their third power play of the game, Ondrej Palat had the puck behind the Detroit net and hit Kucherov in front, the Russian one-timing past Mrazek for an important insurance goal.
“Against Detroit, they play such tight hockey 5-on-5, there are not many chances,” Johnson said. “For us to be able to score on the power play like we did with those two opportunities, that’s huge.”
The Lightning have been scoring with regularity on their power play recently. The Bolts have netted a power-play goal in four-straight games and have tallied five on the man-advantage over that stretch.
Overall, Tampa Bay ranks 13th in the NHL on the power play, converting 19 percent of its chances.
At home, that number jumps to 25.3 percent, third-best in the NHL.
3. AHEAD OF THE GAME
In seven of their last nine games, the Tampa Bay Lightning have scored the game’s opening goal.
Not coincidentally, they’ve won all seven of those games when scoring first.
The first goal in their season series against Detroit has been the most important; each team that’s scored first has won. Detroit scored to start the game in both previous matchups at Joe Louis Arena earlier this season and was able to sit on the lead while choking the life out of the Lightning attack.
On Wednesday, it was the Lightning’s turn.
“When you get a lead against a team like that, you can play a little bit more defense and rely on that,” Johnson said. “I thought we did a great job with that.”
The Lightning had just four shots on goal through the game’s first 20 minutes, but once they were able to put that first puck past Mrazek -- Braydon Coburn lifting a beautiful backhand feed through the crease that snuck through a pair of Detroit defenders and hit a streaking J.T. Brown on the back post – the game opened up. The Bolts had 15 shot in the decisive second period and scored twice to take a 2-1 lead into the final period, where they were able to limit Detroit’s scoring chances.
“That was the key for us was to get the lead,” Cooper said. “We’ve said many times, it’s so much easier to play with the lead than not.”
The Lightning improved to 22-4-0 this season when scoring first following Wednesday’s victory.