But in their recently completed five-game homestand, the Bolts showed how far they had come. The Lightning went 4-1 in those five games and pulled to within eight points of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. These signs of progress cannot only be measured in the win-loss record – equally revealing was the way the team responded in specific game situations.
The homestand opened with a contest against the Philadelphia Flyers, one of the top teams in the East and a contender for the Atlantic Division crown. The Lightning were coming off a 7-1 loss in San Jose just two nights earlier and had flown cross-country back home the previous day. Between the time zone change, the long flight and the fact that they had just wrapped up a 10-day road trip, one would figure that the Lightning might have trouble mustering energy on this night. But that wasn’t the case. The Lightning looked like the fresher team, played one of their most complete games of the year and posted a relatively comfortable win over the Flyers. Afterwards, head coach Rick Tocchet said that the players forced their minds to believe that they weren’t tired and that was how they were able to play through fatigue and jetlag. It was an impressive display.
Of course the next game was the one the Lightning would like to forget. The Bolts couldn’t maintain a 3-1 lead against the Florida Panthers and dropped a painful 4-3 decision. But two nights later, the Lightning rebounded against the Dallas Stars. Dallas entered the game on an 8-3-3 clip, playing some of its best hockey of the year. Through the first two periods, the outcome for the Lightning didn’t look particularly good. Tampa Bay was down 2-1, having difficulty generating energy and struggling to create scoring chances. But with 10 minutes left to go, the Lightning found another gear and amped up their intensity. Steven Stamkos
tied the score and with five minutes left, Vinny Lecavalier blasted in the game-winner during a power play. Vinny Prospal tacked on an empty-netter to complete the comeback. This victory was significant in a couple of ways. First, the Lightning were able to regain some of the momentum they lost during the Florida game and avoided a two-game losing streak. Second, the Lightning won a game in which they weren’t clicking for 60 minutes. One could argue that they didn’t click for the first 50 minutes. But the point is that good teams find ways to win such games.
Game four of the homestand was against Buffalo, which, like Dallas, entered the game on a hot streak. The Sabres were 7-2 through their first nine games in January and were getting great goaltending from Ryan Miller, who was 7-1 during that stretch. But Tampa Bay put five pucks behind Miller and emerged with a 5-3 win. Three times in the second period, the Sabres managed to whittle a two-goal Lightning lead down to one. But the Lightning never allowed Buffalo to net the tying score. Instead, on each occasion, the Lightning scored an insurance goal of their own. Again, this victory was revealing. Every time the Lightning took a punch to the stomach, they didn’t wilt. They punched back. Unlike the Florida game, they weren’t going to allow an opposition comeback effort to snowball on them. Also, this was a game in which neither Lecavalier nor Marty St. Louis recorded a point. For the Lightning to win such a contest (and score five times in the process) is telling. There are going to be nights when Tampa Bay’s top two players are held off the scoresheet. But to win one of those games (and get three goals from defensemen) gave the club a huge confidence boost.
The homestand concluded on Tuesday against Montreal. The Canadiens stormed the Lightning in the first period, outshooting them, 20-7. But thanks to Mike Smith’s 18 saves, Montreal only had a 2-1 lead after the first period. Then in the second period, the Lightning turned the tide of momentum. They held the Canadiens to only five second period shots and scored three goals of their own. That was the difference in another 5-3 triumph. Earlier in the season, the Lightning might not have been able to stem the tide of that Montreal first period wave. Perhaps the Canadiens would have continued to dominate the game and there wouldn’t have been a Tampa Bay comeback. But as Vinny Lecavalier told Phil Esposito and me during a postgame radio interview: “Losing is contagious and winning is contagious.” In other words, thanks to their recent success, the Lightning players now believe they can change the direction of a game that’s not going well.
There were other indicators during the homestand. Lightning players made a concerted effort to get to the front of the opposition’s net and get pucks to the net. In the Buffalo game, three of the five goals came from point shots that were supported with traffic in front of Miller. Three of the five goals against the Canadiens went off skates in front. This net presence is what the coaching staff has been demanding and now it’s starting to pay dividends.
Also, the Lightning won four of these five games with a severely depleted blue line. The Lightning used rookies Kevin Quick and Ty Wishert during the homestand and also relied on David Koci, who hadn’t played defense in years.
There is still little margin for error. The Bolts cannot afford any sort of letdown if they hope to continue this playoff push. But Tampa Bay has served notice to the rest of the league that it has turned a corner and expects to be in the hunt as we head towards April.