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Burns: Three things we learned from taking back first place

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Games between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings are typically tight-checking, low-scoring affairs where every goal is at a premium and games are decided by a single score

Tuesday’s fourth and final regular-season meeting between the two teams certainly deviated from that trend.

The Red Wings entered Amalie Arena a desperate team, their 24-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy as they sat in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with a suddenly red-hot Philadelphia team closing fast.

The Lightning were returning home for their first contest following a four-game, eight-day road trip that took the team from the Rust Belt to Canada to Texas and finally the Southwest. First games back from road trips are always a mixed bag: teams are either sluggish and road-weary or rejuvenated being back home.

The Bolts certainly got a boost returning to the friendly confines of Amalie Arena.

Tampa Bay matched a season high by scoring six goals in a 6-2 rout of the Red Wings. The victory put the Lightning back in front of the Panthers in the Atlantic and in first place in the division. Both teams are tied on points (89), but the Bolts own the tiebreaker, having won 39 games in regulation/overtime to Florida’s 33.

The Lightning have a couple days to revel in their victory before returning to action Friday against another potential playoff opponent in the New York Islanders. The next day, the Bolts face off against the Panthers for the fifth and final time this regular season with the division title potentially up for grabs.

Tampa Bay played one of its most complete games of the season last night. We’ll examine why in today’s 3 Things.

1. FIRST OUT OF THE BLOCKS

The Lightning entered game No. 73 of the regular season determined to take the game to Detroit and not let the opposite happen. In road losses to the Red Wings earlier this season, the Wings grabbed the game’s first goal to get their boisterous crowd into the game and choked the life out of the Lightning attack with their clutching-and-grabbing style that makes scoring near impossible.

The Bolts weren’t going to fall into a similar trap at home.

Tampa Bay came out aggressive from the opening puck drop, skating fast and daring the Red Wings to try to keep up with them. Through the first 10 minutes, the Lightning held a 10-3 advantage in shots.

They also led 2-0.

Erik Condra scored his first goal since December 5, taking a feed from Ondrej Palat and going bar down to beat Detroit starting goalie Jimmy Howard 1:47 into the game. Vladislav Namestnikov made it 2-0 Bolts before the second TV timeout by jamming home a rebound five hole.

“It’s tough playing from behind in this league and digging yourself out of holes,” Howard said. “That’s what we had to do tonight.”

The Lightning, in fact, started all three periods strongly. Steven Stamkos netted his 34th goal of the season just 33 seconds into the second period to give the Lightning a 3-0 advantage and chase Howard from the game. Ondrej Palat scored 1:03 into the third period to put the game out of reach at 5-2.

“It’s a deflator for them for sure,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “The game’s still in balance, a two-goal lead with 20 minutes to go, that one hurts them when we’re able to score there. I thought it kind of calmed the whole game down because there was a stretch in the second period where we got the three-goal lead, they score a power-play goal, they’re kind of on us a little bit and then we (score). That’s a big one for us there.”

All three period-opening goals were important for the Lightning because they swung momentum to the Bolts from the outset and forced the Red Wings to play catchup for the entire game, a role they’re decidedly less comfortable playing because they can’t clamp down defensively. They have to take more risks, opening themselves up.

On Tuesday, the Lightning took full advantage, scoring six times in the dominating win.

2. REST FOR THE WEARY

After traversing most of North America on their four-game road trip, the Lightning were a bit fatigued when they returned from Phoenix due to the travel and the physical toll from a long regular season.

Cooper could sense that his troops needed a break. The Lightning, as expected, took Sunday off after arriving back in Tampa early that morning. But they also cancelled a scheduled practice on Monday to give the team more time to rest up.

When the Lightning took the ice Tuesday, they looked refreshed and full of energy, which they used to jump on the Red Wings early.

“I think it’s a little different at this time of year,” said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who had two assists in Tuesday’s victory. “You skate so much that sometimes rest is a weapon. I thought the guys mentally were ready for it, ready to play from the opening drop, and it doesn’t hurt that we’re playing against Detroit, a division rival and a team we saw in the playoffs last year and had a big rivalry with. So, I think we were a little excited for that as well.”

The Lightning have been pretty dang good all season in the first game back from a multi-game road trip, winning their last seven in a row in such situations after dropping the first three. As one of the outliners geographically in the NHL, the Bolts are used to having to travel long distances on road trips and have become adept at handling the nuances of extended travel in the league.

“Tampa, Florida, Anaheim, all the California teams, they play home for a long string and they go on the road for a long string,” Cooper said. “So that’s something we have to deal with quite often. Is there a little bit of a red flag that goes up on (the Detroit) game? There’s no question. We did have the two days off, and we gave the guys off. We rested and we talked about this a lot, ‘We’re going to give you this rest, but it’s mental rest, it’s physical rest.’ A part of this too is we’re 10 games out and it’s way too bunched up and we’re playing one of our rivals. If you can’t pull yourself together for that one, we’re in trouble.”

The Lightning played one of their best games of the season against Detroit. Here’s guessing the Bolts might see a few more off days down the stretch of the regular season if games like Tuesday’s are the result.

3. POWER PLAY COMES THROUGH WHEN NEEDED MOST

The Lightning’s power play struggles have been well-documented for much of the season. Currently, Tampa Bay is tied for the league’s fifth-worst power play at 16.5 percent.

But on Tuesday, with the Lightning reeling after Detroit scored back-to-back goals, the power play answered with a huge tally that allowed the Bolts to regain momentum and take back control of the game.

Detroit’s power play got the Red Wings on the board midway through the second period to cut the deficit to 3-1. From that point, the Wings played with the puck for most of the second half of the second and got within a goal when Darren Helm scored with 4:35 to go in the period.

The Lightning, however, were not about to let the Dallas loss, when the Stars rallied from a one-goal deficit three separate times to take both points away from the Bolts, happen again.

After giving up the second goal to Detroit, the Lightning had one of their better shifts of the game, controlling the puck in the Wings’ zone, snapping the puck around the perimeter with conviction and drawing a penalty on Mike Green for tripping.

Twelve seconds after Green went to the box, Justin Abdelkader joined him for cross checking Nikita Kucherov.

The Bolts had 1:48 of a 5-on-3 power play and took full advantage. Steven Stamkos spotted Tyler Johnson hanging out in the left circle and sent a pass his way. Johnson quickly delivered a cross-ice feed to Kucherov on the back post, and the Russian easily tapped the puck into the net for his 28th goal of the season and a much-needed shot in the arm for the Lightning.

Once Palat made it 5-2 early in the third period, Detroit’s comeback hopes had been completely snuffed.

“They got those two goals, and we were a little bit on our heels,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. “But we got that power play, and then we got a 5-on-3 pretty quick. We were able to capitalize on that, and I think we took off after that, scored an early one in the third to make it 5-2, that was obviously big for us. Bish made some big saves for us. We bent, but we didn’t break. It’s always good when a team does that.”

The Lightning took Detroit’s best shot in the second period and staggered a bit.

But they didn’t fall to the canvas.

The beleaguered power play was a big reason why.

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