Vancouver was the latest victim, the Canucks riding their own three-game win streak into Tampa before getting shut down by the suddenly red-hot Bolts.
At 64 points, the Lightning enter the All-Star break in sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference.
What can we take away from a convincing 4-1 victory for the Bolts? Read ahead for three things from a third-straight win.
1. LUKE WITKOWSKI WENT UNNOTICED IN HIS NHL DEBUT
Following Tampa Bay’s victory over Vancouver, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper was asked what he thought of recent AHL call-up Luke Witkowski, who played in his first National Hockey League game Tuesday night.
Cooper, in part, responded: “I really didn’t notice him that much.”
To be clear, going invisible as a NHL blue liner is a good thing.
“Luke did everything we asked him,” Cooper added. “He was safe. He made all the plays he had to make. He never got himself in trouble.”
Witkowski has a rugged appearance that goes along with his rough-and-tumble, physical style of play. Stick a 10-gallon hat on his head and strap a pair of boots with spurs on his feet and Witkowski would look like a cowboy straight out of central casting.
If hockey doesn’t work out for Witkowski, he could always make a career as the new Marlboro Man.
Judging from Tuesday’s performance, however, hockey is a solid career path for the 24-year-old Holland, Mich., native. He played 14:29 against Vancouver over 20 shifts and registered two blocked shots. He was perfectly positioned to make the correct play and did so routinely. Witkowski appears ready to fill the void that opened with the losses of Radko Gudas (knee) and Matt Carle (torn adductors) for an extended length of time.
“For his first game, awesome, he did a great job,” fellow defenseman Jason Garrison said. “He helped me out tremendously out there. He’s a solid defenseman. Makes the easy play, is physical and is a big body. So, I think that’s all you can ask for.”
Witkowski is also a hard-working, humble player who thoroughly enjoyed playing in his first game in front of his parents, brother and girlfriend.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” Witkowski said of his first NHL game. “This rink is unbelievable. The fans, we have a great fan base and just makes for an overall great experience.”
2. FEBRUARY WILL BE A TELLING MONTH
Tampa Bay enters the All-Star break as the top team in the Eastern Conference with a one-point lead over the New York Islanders and Detroit Red Wings.
When the Lightning return from the extended layoff, however, the most difficult portion of the schedule awaits.
The Bolts play only four of their 12 games during February at home, and those games are against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, the Western Conference leading Anaheim Ducks, the St. Louis Blues, currently third in the West, and last season’s Western Conference finalist Chicago Blackhawks.
The Lightning embark on their longest road trip of the season in February when they play five games in eight days on the West Coast swing.
Every game during the month comes against teams from the Western Conference, and most of those are against the cream of the crop in the West. If the postseason was to begin today, seven of the Bolts’ 12 February games would come against playoff-qualifying teams.
“That’ll be a big test,” Cooper said.
With such a difficult portion of the schedule upcoming, Tampa Bay’s success pre-All Star break was of vital importance.
“You’ve got to keep munching points because you’re going to need them at some point,” Cooper said. “Really happy with what the guys have done so far.”
The Lightning munched two more on Tuesday with an important win over Vancouver.
3. THE LIGHTNING PENALTY KILL WAS THE REAL MVP
Vancouver had seven power-play opportunities, including two 5-on-3 situations, but failed to convert any of them.
With the Lightning holding on to a 3-1 advantage midway through the third period, Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman were whistled for infractions within 43 seconds of one another to give the Canucks a chance to get back into the game with a two-man advantage.
The Bolts penalty kill quickly shut the door.
Entering the Vancouver game, Tampa Bay was tied for 16th in the NHL killing penalties (81.2 percent). After Tuesday’s performance, the Lightning moved up to 14th (82 percent).
“It starts with Bish, and he was obviously huge tonight,” said Lightning center and penalty killer Brian Boyle when asked why the PK was so effective Tuesday. “Right on through, he’s our number one penalty killer. He’s our most important player. So, it starts with him. Our D and our forwards were communicating. I think we were rolling though. Guys were selling out to block shots, and I think as a unit we took pride in that.”
Vancouver also had a 6-on-4 late in the game after Steven Stamkos was sent to the penalty box and the Canucks pulled goalie Ryan Miller.
Tampa Bay’s defense stiffened, though, and Alex Killorn’s empty-net goal sealed a third-consecutive victory, sending the Lightning into the break on a positive note.