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Burns: 3 things we learned from splitting West Coast back-to-backs

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning traveled to California in desperate need of victories having dropped two in a row prior to departing and falling further in the playoff chase pack.

The Pacific swing proved to be just the tonic the Lightning needed.

Tampa Bay scored impressive wins over the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks and just missed completing the three-game sweep following a narrow loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday to return home with four of a possible six points.

The Lightning improved their record this season against Pacific Division teams to 5-1-0.

“This was a successful trip,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the Bolts’ 3-1 loss to the Kings on Sunday. “What makes it a little tough is we had an opportunity to take six (points) of six, and we only got four out of six. You look back and see we go on a long road trip like this out west and we won two games, so we’ve got to be pleased with that.”

The Lightning return to Amalie Arena having won five of their last eight.

Three Things we learned from this weekend’s pair of games ahead.

1. POWER FAILURE

The Lightning had plenty of opportunities to dispose of the Kings at the Staples Center on Sunday but the inability of their power play to capitalize on a myriad of chances doomed the Bolts to a loss.

Tampa Bay set a season high for power plays in a game with six against the Kings.

The Lightning scored on zero of them.

The Bolts had a 5-on-3 for 1:10 early in the second period trailing 3-1, a perfect opportunity to cut the deficit and get back in the game.

They failed to generate even a shot on goal.

Later in the second, the Lightning held a 4-on-3 advantage. Again, they didn’t register a single shot.

Tampa Bay spent most of its power-play time just trying to successfully carry the puck into the offensive zone. Once there, the Lightning were rarely able to set up their power-play attack and had just four shots total in 9:07 power-play TOI.

“When you get a 5-on-3 and a 4-on-3, we’ve got to do a little bit better than what we did,” Cooper said. “I would sit here and say if (Kings goalie Jonathan) Quick made a bunch of unreal saves, then I could say, ‘Hey, let’s pin it on the goaltender.’ We didn’t make him have to work too hard.”

The Lightning have scored just twice on 23 power plays over their last six games.

This season, the power play is converting on 16.5 percent of its opportunities, which ranks 25th in the NHL.

“Our execution’s off a little bit,” Cooper said. “I think when the frustration mounts, a little bit of negative energy can get in there, and then they’re gripping their sticks.”

2. ON THE MEND

The Lightning are finally starting to get some healthy bodies back after a handful of their top forwards were out due to injury.

The Bolts went to California with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Cedric Paquette and Jonathan Drouin sidelined.

They return to Tampa with just Palat and Paquette out, and both could be back soon.

Drouin was in the lineup against Anaheim and immediately made an impact, scoring a goal and adding an assist, his first points since Oct. 15 after missing 11-of-15 games.

“It was great to see him,” Cooper said following the Anaheim victory. “He looked fresh. He had his legs. He was moving. He was making plays. You give him a little bit of open ice like he had there, he’ll put the puck in the net.”

Tyler Johnson was back in action Sunday versus Los Angeles after missing three-straight games and six of the previous eight. Johnson’s ice time was 17:40 -- he spent 4:02 of that on the Bolts’ numerous power plays – but he didn’t register a shot on goal.

“The first game back is always tough,” Cooper said. “Your timing and everything is a little bit off. There were stretches in the game where I thought the guys played well and stretches where they didn’t. He’ll get better.”

Palat appears close to returning after practicing with the team during the West Coast trip. He’s coming up on week five of his rehab. When Palat suffered his lower-body injury, the initial prognosis was he’d be out three to five weeks.

Paquette, meanwhile, remains a bit of an enigma. The hard-nosed forward had targeted the California trip as his chance to get back in the lineup, but he wasn’t ready. Hopefully, he’ll be good to go when the Lightning host Ottawa Thursday at Amalie Arena.

3. GOALTENDER SHUFFLE

It wasn’t necessarily anything Andrei Vasilevskiy did wrong during his period and change that led to Cooper benching him in favor of Ben Bishop early in the second period Sunday.

Cooper, though, said he was looking for “a spark” and thought bringing in the veteran goalie might help the Lightning return home with all six points.

A night earlier, Bishop got caught around the eye after the stick blade of San Jose’s Tomas Hertl went through his mask and hit him in the face. Bishop exited the San Jose game in obvious discomfort, the potential for a serious eye injury on everyone’s mind.

Perhaps, then, Cooper felt the team seeing Bishop back on the ice in a quick turnaround would lift their spirits and give them a much-needed boost.

“That’s coach’s feel,” Cooper said. “Vasy’s been so good for us. Believe me, that kid’s going to play again. He’s going to play a lot. But we were just looking for that spark. Unfortunately they got the next one and we didn’t.”

Bishop looked sharp in the two periods he played, making 17-of-18 saves and alleviating any fears from the previous night’s incident.

Cooper, meanwhile, said Vasilevskiy will be counted on heavily throughout this season, despite getting pulled on Sunday.

“That kid’s a competitor,” Cooper said. “One thing is, anytime you’re pulled out of a game, you’re naturally not happy. Believe me, as coaches you don’t want to do that, but you’re trying to do what you can to win a hockey game. At the time, it was the decision we made.”

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