The Lightning continue to bank points at Amalie Arena, improving their home record to 25-6-1 with a solid 4-2 victory over the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Tampa Bay pulled to within two points of Atlantic Division/Eastern Conference leading Montreal and are now third in the East behind the Canadiens (88 points) and the New York Islanders (87). The Lightning have one more game remaining on their current three-game homestand – Saturday vs. Dallas – before embarking on a two-game trip to Montreal (Tuesday) and Boston (Thursday) that will have playoff seeding implications.
So, what did we learn about the Lightning on Thursday as the team enters this important stretch of the season?
Let’s take a look.
1. NAMESTNIKOV PROVES HIS WORTH
Following morning skate ahead of Tampa Bay’s game that night against Toronto, recent recalled Vladislav Namestnikov said he would look to that night’s matchup as an audition of sorts to prove to the Lightning he belonged in the NHL permanently.
Namestnikov has been shipped back and forth between Syracuse and Tampa Bay a few times this season, his most recent callup being made on an emergency basis following an upper-body injury to J.T. Brown.
Namestnikov took full advantage of his opportunity, scoring the game-winning goal in the third period against the Maple Leafs and playing a solid, all-around game, prompting head coach Jon Cooper to say the 22-year-old Russian was “one of our best forwards tonight” following the game.
Truth be told though, Namestnikov’s position on the Lightning was solidified when the team traded Brett Connolly to Boston for second round draft picks in 2015 and 2016. Both Cooper and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman mentioned Namestnikov when discussing why the trade was made, the two saying the move would open the door for him.
Namestnikov will have to go back to Syracuse once J.T. Brown is healthy again, but chances are good based on previous displays and last night’s performance that the skilled forward will be back in Tampa Bay before the end of the season.
Said Cooper: “When we start getting down the stretch here…we’re going to need depth, and he really helps in that regard.”
2. HOME-ICE ADVANTAGE
Tampa Bay tied a franchise record against Toronto by earning its 25th victory at Amalie Arena. With nine more home games remaining, chances are pretty good the Lightning will break that mark before the end of the regular season.
The Lightning own the best home record in the NHL and have made it near impossible for visiting teams to enter Amalie Arena and come away with points.
“This has been a tough building for teams to come in, and we wanted to make that happen,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “I think over the past couple years we’ve been able to build each and every year to make this place tough.”
Following Thursday’s win over Toronto, the Bolts 14th win at home in their last 16, Cooper admitted his team is tough to beat at home. But he said that matters little once the postseason begins. In 2013-14, the Lightning won 25 games and were 25-10-6 overall at home before losing both home games to Montreal in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
“If we get into the playoffs, we’ve got to show that we can win at home in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “But, different year, different team. We’ve grown together a little bit more, and I think you can see that in our play. To be able to come home, there’s a real comfort being here.”
3. PEAKS AND VALLEYS
The Lightning have been playing some of their best hockey of late. Following a difficult West Coast road trip in which the team finished 3-2-0 and were victorious in some buildings that haven’t been kind to the Bolts in recent history, Tampa Bay has won three of its last four, including a thoroughly dominating performance over defending Western Conference finalist Chicago seven days ago.
But throughout this positive stretch of play, the Lightning have experienced momentarily lapses, stretches where their performance hasn’t matched the level they’ve established in recent times.
On Thursday, this lapse came in the second period. After building a 2-0 lead and looking like they would run Toronto out of the building in the first period, the Lightning saw their play dip in the second, allowing the Maple Leafs to get back in the game.
“We lost our structure a little bit, and when we do that, that’s when we’re giving up odd-mans,” Cooper said. “I think we had the 2-0 lead and maybe we thought it was going to continue to be the way it was in the first. You take your foot off the gas at any point, you’re going to get burned, and we did a little bit.”
The Lightning recovered to put the Maple Leafs away in the third, but it will be important for the team to eliminate these dips in play down the stretch and string together 60-minute performances to go on the postseason run many think this team is capable of making.
“It’s hard to turn it on and turn it off,” Cooper said. “Once it’s off, it’s hard to get back going again.”