Columbus did its best to put a stranglehold on Tampa Bay’s potent attack, limiting the Lighting to one goal and only a handful of scoring chances over the first two periods.
A pair of goals in quick succession, however, blew the game open for in a 3-1 win for Tampa Bay, which has now won 10 straight at Amalie Arena.
The Bolts are 2-1 following the All-Star break and finish the month of January with an 8-4-0 record.
The Lightning needed to win on Saturday to stay ahead of Detroit and Montreal in the race for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. The Bolts remain in first with 68 points; the Red Wings and Canadiens are right behind at 67.
What did we learn about the Lightning as the team enters a difficult February portion of the schedule?
Let us be your guide.
1. YOU CAN’T STOP CEDRIC PAQUETTE, YOU CAN ONLY HOPE TO CONTAIN HIM
Seriously, what’s gotten into Cedric Paquette?
Before the All-Star break, the 21-year-old forward was mired in a 29-game goal drought but continued to be a contributor in other ways: penalty killing, playing tight defensively, getting under the opposition’s skin, etc.
Now that he’s added goal-scoring to his repertoire, Paquette is fast becoming one of the more valuable members of the team, which is amazing considering he started the season in Syracuse.
Paquette scored his fifth goal in three games against Columbus, finding himself in the right spot at the right time as Jonathan Drouin’s blocked-shot rebound came right to him in front of goal with the net wide open in the third period to push the Bolts’ lead to 2-0.
Paquette has been the beneficiary of some fortunate bounces of the puck lately, but he’s created his luck too with hustle and determination.
“He’s earned those breaks,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Paquette’s never been on a scoring run like his current one.
“Maybe in junior one time, but I don’t remember it that much,” he said.
The key for Paquette is to stay the course.
“I don’t think about (the goal streak),” he said. “I just play my game.”
2. GOAL SCORERS GALORE
Paquette’s sudden scoring surge underscores an important characteristic of this Lightning team: guys up and down the lineup can put the puck in the back of the net.
Last night, Paquette scored his 10th goal of the season. So too did Valtteri Filppula, giving the Lightning nine players in double figures for goals, the most in the NHL.
Brett Connolly, who got the Bolts on the board in the opening period, is close to making it 10 players as he currently sits on nine goals.
None of the Triplets have scored in the last five games, but the Lightning continue to put up goals.
“We have four lines that can score,” Paquette said. “I think that’s why we have the most goals in the league. Our line, again, played a good game tonight. That’s why we have success.”
Each Lightning line has at least two guys who can produce offense, which makes it impossible for opponents to key on individual players.
“To have success, you’re going to have to have scoring throughout the lineup,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “You can’t rely on one or two lines. It’s just not going to happen for 82 games…We get scoring throughout the whole lineup, and that’s key, especially come late in the season.”
3. COLUMBUS IS A GOOD PREVIEW OF WHAT THE BOLTS ARE ABOUT TO FACE
Despite their sub-.500 record, the Blue Jackets are a difficult team to play against. They’re a heavy squad that clogs the middle of the ice and disrupts passing lanes, making goals hard to come by.
Tampa Bay failed to produce much in the way of scoring opportunities over the first two periods until a quick flurry of goals from Paquette and Filppula put the game out of reach.
The Lightning can expect to see more of this style of play as they enter February. All 12 of the Bolts’ games during the month are against Western Conference opponents, and the Blue Jackets are a team that plays in that Western style.
“Columbus is big, strong, physical, and that’s probably a lot of what we’re going to see out west,” Cooper said. “Speed’s our asset. We’ve got some skill. We’ve got a little puck possession going, but we can’t sit here and count on scoring three, four goals a game all the time. I like what I’m seeing, we’re giving up one, giving up one, that’s what needs to happen.”
The Lightning will play eight of 12 games in February on the road, including a season-long, five-game West Coast road trip.
“It’s a daunting task every night, but we can’t sit here and cry foul about it. Everybody’s got to go out west,” Cooper said. “The New York Rangers went out west and swept them. So, it can be done, we just have to keep growing as a team on the road.”