With six of their next seven and seven of their next nine games on the road, the Tampa Bay Lightning would like to put their mini, two-game losing skid to a halt before heading away from Amalie Arena, where they’ve built an 18-10-2 record, one of the best home marks in the National Hockey League.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper called tonight’s matchup versus the Winnipeg Jets a “vital” contest for the Bolts.
“Eight days ago, nine days ago, we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves, and then five quick games later, we’re looking up and seeing a whole bunch of teams ahead of us,” Cooper said. “That’s the one thing too, you have to kind of put a cork in the hole here and stop the leaking here because I think we’ve got four (games) in six (days) coming up and a three in four and then another four in six. The games are going to just start piling up, and a lot of them are on the road.”
Tampa Bay is playing the second of two meetings this season against Winnipeg tonight. The Lightning won 4-3 in overtime at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg (Oct. 23), Ondrej Palat scoring the winning goal 36 seconds into the extra frame.
Bolts defenseman Anton Stralman remembered the Jets as a physical team when they played in the season’s opening month, and he expects the Bolts will need a determined effort tonight to sweep the season series.
“They’re a big team,” he said. “They play hard. They work really hard, and our effort lately is not going to cut it. We have to step up. We have to rise to the challenge and really prepare for this game as best as we can and make sure we have a good game.”
ADDRESSING DEFENSIVE ISSUES
In losing four of its last five games, Tampa Bay has uncharacteristically given up numerous scoring chances because of defensive breakdowns. The Lightning have ranked among the top teams in the NHL all season for goals against but have given up three or more goals in five of their last six games, going 2-4-0 over that stretch.
“I think what’s happened here in the last week, we’ve just gotten away from our identity,” Cooper said. “We were a top five team in goals against for pretty much 45 games this year. Now in our last 10, we’ve really gone away from what’s been kind of a mandate of our team…We’ve got to make that choice to play D. When that happens, I’ll take our chances in scoring goals.”
Cooper explained that the issues of late aren’t completely a function of the Bolts’ defense but rather players not being on the same page with oneanother and getting too loose all over the ice.
“It’s almost like every time we were going in the zone, we were pressing so hard to keep pucks in and score instead of recognizing situations that you’re playing against NHL players, you get yourself out of position, they will burn you,” Cooper said. “That’s kind of what we were doing. We’re playing way too reckless. That’s why you see all the odd-man rushes and breakaways.”
Stralman said expect to see a “defense-first mentality” from the Lightning tonight.
“As soon as we lose the puck, everybody has to be above and have their guy,” he said. “Even in the (offensive) zone, we have to talk more and make sure we outnumber quicker and play better defensively.”
Tampa Bay left wing Ondrej Palat did not take part in the Bolts’ morning skate and will be a game-time decision tonight according to Cooper. Palat was struck with the flu bug that’s been making its way through the Lightning locker room, but Cooper wouldn’t rule him out completely for the game against the Jets.
“It got to him last night, so hopefully tonight he’s OK,” Cooper said. “But, yeah, we didn’t want to put him out this morning.”
Palat is just the latest Bolt to feel ill in recent weeks.
“It’s a tough time on our team because it’s just picking guys off one by one,” Cooper said. “It’s not one where you’re, you can’t play through these.”
Vladislav Namestnikov might also be out of action tonight. The 23-year-old forward suffered an upper-body injury in the loss Sunday to St. Louis and was held out of Tuesday’s game versus San Jose but has practiced Wednesday and Thursday.
“He’s sore,” Cooper said. “I don’t think…it’s a long-term thing. We’re just throwing a little caution to the wind here with him, and hopefully we’ll see him this weekend.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start in the Bolts’ net versus Winnipeg. Vasilevskiy saw his six-game win streak come to an end in his last start Feb. 8 at Ottawa. “The decision was to get Vasy a game in the American League, and then get him back up here, get him in one this week,” Cooper said. “Tonight’s the night.”…The Lightning haven’t allowed a power-play goal in four-straight games and have given up just two power-play goals in their last 12 games (95% penalty kill)…Slater Koekkoek is celebrating his 22nd birthday today…The Bolts have dropped three straight at home to the Jets, going 0-2-1 over that stretch.