The Lightning started 2016 on fire with victories in 11 of their first 13 games of the new year, mixing in a seven-game win streak and a nine-game home win streak for good measure.
Starting with back-to-backs in Canada, however, the Lightning lost four of their next five to drop to ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
A return to basics has seen the Bolts regain their winning touch.
Tuesday’s 2-1 victory at Amalie Arena over the Arizona Coyotes was the Bolts’ fourth win in a row and propelled them into sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division and third place in the East. The Lightning played a simple game against Arizona: they made smart, crisp passes out of their own end, they didn’t get caught too deep in the offensive zone, they were on the right side of pucks when it was turned over, they jumped on a team playing the second half of a back-to-back set and they harassed Arizona rookie goaltender Louis Domingue with 36 shots, two of which hit the back of the net, including Cedric Paquette’s penalty shot conversion.
Tuesday’s game was noteworthy for a number of reasons. We’ll highlight why in today’s 3 Things.
1. PAQ MAN
Cedric Paquette’s second full season in the NHL hasn’t gone as smoothly as the 22-year-old would have hoped.
The power forward missed the first four games of the season because of a lower-body injury sustained in the preseason. He missed five more games in late October-early November due to the same lower-body injury then sat over a month in November and December with an upper-body injury.
But since Christmas, Paquette has remained injury-free. The game against Arizona was his 26th straight in the Lightning lineup.
Finally healthy for an extended amount of time, Paquette is starting to make an impact in the game too.
On February 16 vs. San Jose, Paquette scored his first goal in over three months. Sunday in Carolina, he assisted on two of Tampa Bay’s four goals, recording the first multi-assist game of his NHL career.
And Wednesday against Arizona, Paquette continued to be a force on the ice. He got loose behind the Coyotes power-play unit to start a shorthanded breakaway that Shane Doan was forced to shut down with a hook. Paquette converted the subsequent penalty shot for his fourth goal of the season and the game-winner over the Coyotes.
“Good for him, he deserves it,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “That kid’s played outstanding for us the last three or four games. He’s been really good.”
Paquette became the first player to convert a penalty shot in four tries this season for the Lightning. In fact, Paquette’s conversion was the first for the Bolts since April 8, 2011, when Vinny Lecavalier beat Florida’s Scott Clemmensen in a 4-2 win over the Panthers.
The Lightning had missed on eight-straight penalty shots over five seasons until Paquette’s make Wednesday.
“Well, I don’t have many moves,” said Paquette, who couldn’t remember ever taking a penalty shot in his career before Wednesday night. “I had an idea in my head, and I thought the goalie would bite on it and I could put (the puck) in the back of the net.”
Paquette said he’s finally starting to feel right again after going back and forth from the lineup to the injured list through the first half of the season.
“Yeah it was a tough beginning of the year,” Paquette said. “I wasn’t getting the bounces like I did tonight and a lot of injuries so I wasn’t as confident as I have been before, but I’m starting to feel pretty good right now.”
One other penalty shot note: of the 49 penalty shots in the NHL this season, eight have come at Amalie Arena (four for the Lightning, four for opponents), by far the highest percentage (16%) of any arena in the league (Arizona is second at 8%).
2. A HISTORIC NIGHT
The Lightning hit a few milestones in the victory over Arizona.
The regular-season game was the 1,800th in franchise history.
Steven Stamkos moved into a tie for fourth place on the Lightning’s all-time games played list after skating in the 552nd game of his career. Stamkos will pass Brad Richards on Friday in New Jersey and trails only Lecavalier (1,037), Martin St. Louis (972) and Pavel Kubina (662) for most games played in a Bolts sweater.
Also Tuesday, Valtteri Filppula played in his 700th career NHL game, joining defensemen Matt Carle in the Bolts’ 700-games club. Carle reached No. 700 four games earlier on February 16 against San Jose.
Asked what number 700 represented, Filppula joked, “Getting old.”
“I’ve been fairly healthy during my whole career to get some games. It’s a nice milestone.”
Filppula is in his 11th season in the NHL and third with the Lightning -- he played eight seasons in Detroit before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent prior to the 2013-14 season – and has yet to miss the postseason during his standout career, a stat he hopes continues this year.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of good teams,” Filppula said. “That’s been the most fun I’d say. I’ve played in the playoffs a lot, and that’s always something that’s been special to me.”
3. GETTING DEFENSIVE
The Lightning played less-than-stellar defense in losing four of five games in February, a trend that continued in a 6-5 shootout victory over Winnipeg that saw the Bolts blow a 4-1 lead in the third period by giving up four-consecutive goals before rallying to win.
Following that game, the Bolts weren’t in a celebratory mood. They held a team meeting, an uncommon occurrence after a victory. They spoke extensively to the media in post-game conversations about the numerous defensive breakdowns and the need to correct them rather than enjoying the hard-fought win.
Since that meeting, the Lightning have returned to a defense-first mentality, a mindset that’s been the catalyst behind the current four-game win streak.
That, and some pretty good goaltending performances from All-Star Ben Bishop and second-year backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“We give up one tonight, and we had a pretty good defensive trip against Pittsburgh and Carolina in the number of goals that we gave up, but we did have to rely on our goaltender those nights,” Cooper said following Tuesday’s victory. “You’re going to have to rely on them at some point, but you can’t make it an every period thing. But we’ve been better at it. We went through this stretch where we were leaking oil a little bit defensively, but I don’t know too many teams that at some point don’t give up some goals.”
The Lightning have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL, ranking in the top 10 all season for goals against. Currently, they’re rated eighth at 2.43 goals a game.
At various points this season, the Bolts have been in the top five in the league for goals against.
“I like what I’m seeing,” Cooper said. “We’re getting back to our roots here a little bit, but now we’ve got a big test. We’ve got these teams that are right in the hunt in Jersey and Boston coming up next, and we’re going to have to continue to play this way to get through this little stretch.”