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Burns: Three things we learned from splitting the back-to-back

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

With seven games remaining in the NHL regular season, it seems the race for the Atlantic Division title is going to come down to the very last one.

The Florida Panthers stated their case for the division championship on Saturday, downing the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-2 at Amalie Arena to regain the top spot in the Atlantic after losing it a few days earlier. The Panthers completed the five-game regular-season series against the Lightning with wins in four of five.

The Lightning, meanwhile, continue to be vexed by the Panthers this season. During the season series, the Cats scored a goal with 38 seconds remaining to tie a game and win in a shootout; scored a goal with 21 seconds to go to break a scoreless deadlock and win; and ended the Bolts’ seven-game win streak with a 5-2 beat down at the BB&T Center.

On Saturday, the Lightning played well. They started the game brightly, scored the opening goal, controlled the game for large stretches, netted two power-play tallies.

And they still lost 5-2.

For whatever reason, the Panthers have had the Bolts’ number this season.

The Lightning clamed four of six points against playoff contenders through the difficult portion of their current six-game home stand. Now, the challenge eases somewhat as the Bolts close the home stand against non-playoff teams, a chance to stack points and move closer to securing a spot in the postseason for a third-straight season.

So what can we take out of Saturday’s loss to the Panthers? And how will the Bolts regroup after losing defenseman Anton Stralman a night earlier?

Examining those questions and more in today’s 3 Things.

1. PICKING UP THE SLACK

The Lightning were dealt a major blow when all-everything defenseman Anton Stralman suffered a fracture of the left fibula early in Friday’s victory over the Islanders. Watching Stralman being helped off the ice by Jason Garrison and Steven Stamkos, his left leg dangling without the ability to put any weight on the injured appendage, was a sobering image for Tampa Bay Lightning fans.

Stralman is one of the most indispensable players on the Lightning. His partnership with fellow Swede Victor Hedman provided the Bolts with one of the top No. 1 defensive pairs in the league. Where Hedman was the dynamo who could disrupt a rush on the defensive end and start one the other way with his fluid skating and offensive prowess, Stralman was the steady performer whose consistency allowed Hedman to be Hedman. You could count the mistakes Stralman made in a season on one hand.

“Anton, on a personal level, you feel for the guy,” Tampa Bay center Brian Boyle said. “He literally comes to work every day with the same demeanor, positive guy, great guy to be around, lots of fun. And he works. He’s such a huge part of our club. The way he plays, the way he is in here in the room and all the things that he does for us on the ice, it’s a loss. We understand that.”

Stralman was, arguably, one of two or three players the Lightning absolutely could not lose if they wished to return to the Stanley Cup Final this season.

Now, they’ll have to figure out how to survive while the injured defenseman tries to heal in time for a possible return sometime during the postseason. While his regular season may be over, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his season is not

“We’re not going to sit here and say, ‘One of our defensemen got hurt. That’s it. We’re mailing it in,’” Cooper said. “No way. Strals will be the first one to tell you, ‘Boys, let’s go extend the season so I can come back.’ That’ll be our goal.”

On Saturday, Slater Koekkoek was recalled from Syracuse and played 5:57 against the Panthers, recording one takeaway. The Lightning will need youngsters like Koekkoek, Nikita Nesterov and Andrej Sustr to hasten their maturation process in Stralman’s absence while veterans like Hedman, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle will be called on to provide even more leadership in the back end.

The forwards will have to pitch in too. The Lightning defend as a group on the entire ice, not just from the back end. That mentality will take on added importance with Stralman out.

“We can’t dwell on it,” Boyle said. “We need to work to get better. Everybody needs to work to get better, support one another on the ice, being around guys, whether it’s more communication with some of the younger guys coming in playing more minutes or whatever it is, we all need to be very attentive to detail and go about it that way. It’s just kind of the way we have to play with a loss like that. Hopefully it’s not as long as it should be and he can come back quick and help us.”

Added Cooper: “(Stralman’s) an extremely important part of our team and has been since the day he got here. But, as we said in our locker room, his season’s not over. Nobody’s going to replace him. He’s a top defenseman in this league. But, the way we defend as a group and the depth we have there, we should be OK.”

2. VASILEVSKIY STILL ADJUSTING TO LIMITED ICE TIME

Bolts backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy lost his third-straight start on Saturday, the second-year pro giving up four goals on 26 shots.

Vasilevskiy has had a solid sophomore campaign in the NHL, going 11-8-0 over 21 starts. But the youngster has found coming off the bench an unfamiliar role. The infrequent starts and the amount of time between appearances have been difficult to deal with.

Unfortunately for him, ice team will be even more limited as the Lightning lean on Vezina-candidate Ben Bishop more and more over these crucial final seven games of the regular season and a possible postseason run.

“When I had a good run maybe two months ago, a couple wins in a row, I played a lot and feel great,” Vasilevskiy said after the Florida loss, referring to a stretch from Dec. 15 to Feb. 29 when he won nine of his 10 starts. “Right now, when we get closer to playoffs, (I play) one or two games a month, I know it’s just an excuse but for a goalie it’s important to play a lot to gain some confidence.”

Vasilevskiy was dejected after Saturday’s loss but understands his role on the team and his value to the Bolts. He knows now is not his time. Bishop is the starting goalie and playing as well as anyone in the league this season. He’s been arguably the Lightning MVP. As long as he’s able to suit up, Bishop will start every game in the postseason.

Vasilevskiy just wishes he could be at his best whenever his name is called, that the rust wouldn’t accumulate during time between starts.

The frustration was evident in his voice after Saturday’s loss.

3. MAGIC NUMBER FOR PLAYOFF BERTH IS 9

Despite Saturday’s loss to the Panthers, the Lightning still gained ground in their quest to make the playoffs for a third-straight season.

The Bolts entered Saturday’s game with a magic number of 11, any combination of points gained by the Lightning or points lost by current Eastern Conference ninth seed Detroit lowering the Bolts’ magic number.

The Lightning woke up Sunday with a magic number of nine, courtesy of Detroit’s 7-2 blowout loss at home to Pittsburgh.

With seven games left in the regular season, Tampa Bay controls its own playoff destiny. Pick up nine more points out of those seven games, and the Lightning are in.

They have a good chance to inch closer to the postseason in the final three games of their last home stand of the regular season too with games against Toronto, Montreal and New Jersey, the Maple Leafs having already been eliminated from the postseason and the Habs and Devils still mathematically eligible but on major life support.

“We’re 2-1 on this home stand and the boys have been battling hard,” Cooper said following the loss to Florida. “We’ve won two big ones. We definitely wanted this one tonight. It didn’t happen. We’ve got three next week and now we’ve got to take care of business.”

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