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Early schedule has done Bolts no favors

To this point, Tampa Bay has played the second fewest home games of any team in the League

by Bryan Burns /

Nine games into the 2019-20 season and at the halfway point between two of the longer road trips of the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are sitting in decent position with a 5-3-1 start.

There have been noteworthy wins, a 7-3 rout in Toronto and a 4-3 shootout victory in Boston, a place the Lightning have historically not had much success in the regular season, being the most notable.

There have also been head-scratching losses, like the defeat in Ottawa, one of only two victories for the Senators this season.

Considering the Lightning played six of their first seven games away from AMALIE Arena, their current record is impressive. Not up to the standard the team set last year during a record-setting 62-win campaign, but a good starting point from which to build.

Things could be a lot worse too. Consider Minnesota. The Wild are the only other team in the National Hockey League that's played as few home games as the Lightning, and they're in last place in the Western Conference with a 3-7-0 record.

"I think we're getting better," Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. "I think the games in Montreal and Boston finishing up that road trip were very good, and coming home against Colorado where we weren't happy with our performance and able to bounce back right away against Pittsburgh, it's trending in the right direction. Got things to improve obviously, so that's what we worked hard in practice today. We skate hard, we work hard, we battle hard, but it's with a purpose. It's to become better in certain areas of our game. We've just got to keep going."

Video: Hedman on Bolts facing adversity

The upcoming schedule doesn't get any easier for Tampa Bay either. The Lightning complete a three-game homestand Saturday when they host the Nashville Predators at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop). After that, they're off to New York City for three games in four nights against the Rangers (Tuesday), Devils (Wednesday) and Islanders (Friday) before flying directly from the Big Apple to Sweden for a week and the Global Series back-to-back games against the Buffalo Sabres from Stockholm's Ericsson Globe.

After Saturday, the Bolts aren't back at AMALIE Arena until a matchup against the Rangers November 14, an 18-day stretch between home games.

"We're improving a lot of areas of our game," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Our compete level has been exceptional in practice here the last few weeks, and it's translating into the games. Sometimes our decision making has been a little off, but the guys care and they've been working. After nine games, it's probably still a little early, but I guess if you go 5-3-1 every nine-game segment, you should be in half decent shape. We've been tested by some pretty good teams here at the start and another one coming up in Nashville. For the most part, the guys have handled it pretty well."

RECURRING THEME: Every practice day since a 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, the Lightning have spent a good portion of their training sessions in battle and compete drills.

Goaltending coach Frantz Jean breaks out a can of black spray paint and draws a semi-circle from the middle of the wall behind the goal to the midpoint between the goal line and blue line (Jean, by the way, has become quite adept at drawing these lines without any squiggles).

The Lightning bring a net at the edge of the semi-circle, and in this tight space, the players battle along the wall in one-on-one or two-on-two scenarios and, depending on what side of the drill they're on, try to hold possession of the puck or knock it away from the puck carrier while trying to get a shot on goal or preventing one.

The battles are spirited and intense and can easily lead to hard feelings if allowed to get out of hand. But the Lightning have done a good job working hard during the drills and joking with one another about them after.

"We practice with a purpose," Hedman said. "That's one of the areas of the game we want to become better, win battles in our D-zone and win battles in the offensive zone. That's good to have in practice, and, overall, we're all good friends in this room but we've still got to go hard against one another to improve in that area. So, for us to have a few practice days in between games is good for us I think. It's just going to be a habit for us moving forward."

Winning 50/50 battles has been a theme in practice throughout training camp and into the regular season but has certainly ratcheted up since Saturday's loss to the Avalanche, Ryan McDonagh saying a day after that defeat the video review session from that game revealed a lot of 50/50 losses that added up to a lopsided loss.

"There's been a lot of compete," Cooper said. "The coaching staff's done a good job of putting them together, and the players have done a great job of responding. But in some of those areas, the battles and the one-on-ones, we've needed to get better and we definitely have in practice. And so we can see the energy the guys have had. It's also helped having kind of a light game week, so we've been able to get some practice time. I know the guys like to play games more than practice, but they haven't shown it here. It's been really good."

Video: Cooper on Bolts competing at practice

UNLIKELY HERO: At the end of Friday's practice, following another intense session of compete and battle drills, the Lightning held a quick shootout competition to determine a winner between the blue and white teams.

One by one, players like Steven Stamkos, Mikhail Sergachev and Tyler Johnson were thwarted in their shootout attempts by Curtis McElhinney.

The lone player to convert and send the losing team up and down to ice to end practice with gassers?

That would be Braydon Coburn, who started toward goal, doubled back to compose himself - to the protests of the white team -- and calmly shot past McElhinney with the forehand on his second go-round.

As the blue team celebrated, Coburn got down on one knee and slid from blue line to blue line while pumping his fist in his best Nikita Kucherov impression.

In the locker room after practice, Coburn regretted his celly.

"My hips almost separated," he joked. "I'm not that flexible anymore."

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