The ups and downs of an 82-game NHL grind can be a dizzying roller coaster of emotions.
Sometimes momentum makes it seem easier to win for a short period of time. Through other stretches, finishing off victories almost seems impossible. The teams that navigate through the six-plus months of battles on more of a straight line often play hockey in late April and, perhaps, beyond.
Don’t get too high, or too low. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet emphasized that mindset through the preseason and, just passed the quarter pole of the season, his team is making progress toward that goal.
Through Thursday, only two teams (Chicago and Washington) had less regulation losses than Tampa Bay. Only once have the Lightning gone three games without getting a two-point effort. That was the first three games of the season, including a shootout loss to New Jersey when the Devils tied it with one second left in regulation. The only time they have lost two consecutive games in regulation they bounced back by beating the league’s current top team, San Jose, and started a four-game point streak (2-0-2).
It’s no secret that the level of talent and experience in the locker room is much higher than last season. But Tocchet has also liked the demeanor of his team after wins and losses, which has contributed to a strong start.
“Our attitude is that we’re a lot less susceptible to having a huge losing streak or just being so high on ourselves when we win a few games that we think we are better than we are,” Tocchet said. “I think we are a lot more even keel and that translates to a stable team.”
That has shown in point streaks after regulation losses. It has also been on display during games.
Strong goaltending from Antero Niittymaki and Mike Smith has kept the Lightning around in games before they could make plays to get a point or two. The Lightning did not put up particularly strong efforts for two periods against Florida, Minnesota, the second game against New Jersey at home and fell behind 3-0 at Anaheim. But two turned into victories and the Lightning got a point in the other two.
“We’re talking about it and we are saying a lot of right things,” said forward Ryan Malone, who has four goals in games after regulation losses. “That’s important, but actions speak louder than words. Even if we’re down a couple goals, we still think if we play the right way we can come back against anybody.”
Steven Stamkos said there is a confidence, a belief in each other in the room.
“I think we’re starting to understand how good we could be,” Lightning center Zenon Konopka said. “Once you make a few comebacks, you realize that you have a pretty good hockey club.”
The Lightning had gotten points in every home game before the 4-3 loss to Toronto Wednesday -- a game in which they came back to tie the game twice. Tocchet said the team was not as mentally sharp as it needed to be. But if the pattern continues, the Lightning will respond with strong efforts.
“In order to make the playoffs, you have to get points on a daily basis,” forward Alex Tanguay said. “We’ve been doing a good job at that. We’ve lost a few too many games in overtime and in shootouts and we’d like to work on that. But every time we’ve lost, we’ve found a way to play better the next night and at least get some points. Every year it takes 95 to 96 points to make the playoffs and that’s what we’re shooting for. To do that, it’s important not to go into a slump.”
Teams that get too emotional, defenseman Matt Walker says, lose their focus. Sometimes you work harder in practice after victories and free the mind after losses.
It is still early, but there seems to be a solid chemistry in the locker room. Stamkos said it is a very close-knit team, despite varying personalities.
“It’s some guys nature to be fired up and some guys are calm no matter what,” Walker said. “You have to have that right balance. Sometimes you need a guy to tell someone to take it easy and sometimes it takes a guy to light a fire. We have a good mix in the room that can feed off each other that way. That keeps us where we need to be.”
There is plenty of professionalism. There are also a lot of laughs. Todd Fedoruk was seen rolling over on his head 10 times down the hallway outside the locker room Tuesday and the Lightning celebrated Kurtis Foster’s birthday when two teammates snuck up from behind and gave him a shaving cream pie to the face. Stephane Veilleux was also the victim of shaving cream pie during a recent road trip.
Konopka and Fedoruk have been key in lightening the mood in the locker room. Konopka was with the team late last season and Fedoruk, a veteran of six NHL locker rooms, came over with David Hale in a trade for Radim Vrbata this summer.
“Those two guys bring a lot to the dressing room and it carries over onto the ice,” center Jeff Halpern said. “Although I would never complain about it, 82 games can be a grind at times. When you come to the locker room and everything is exciting because of the importance of people like Knopper and Fridge, it makes the season more fun. I can’t stress how important that is to have a fun culture in the room.”
Said Malone: “Those guys are warriors and they know what it takes to win and are willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to get the job done. They bring smiles to the room. We’re focused during games, but we’re loose at the same time. That’s a great combination.”
The Lightning have three teenagers on the current roster and eight players 25 and under. Tocchet likes the fact that they are watching a strong room coming together.
“They are like sponges on our team right now,” Tocchet said. “When they see these guys act accordingly after wins and losses it goes a long way in their development.”
The kids will learn a lot the next two and a half months as well. The condensed NHL schedule, due to the Winter Olympics in February, has not really affected the Lightning yet. It will.
Starting with the Rangers game Friday, the Lightning will play 35 games in 73 days. They will play 15 games each in December and January and seven games in the last 13 days before the Olympic break. When they return, the Lightning will play 21 games the last 41 days of the season.
It will be physically draining at times, but Tanguay said he thinks most players like to play a lot of games in a short period of time.
“It’s easier to get focused when you know what you have to do,” Tanguay said. “With so many games, you get the pace, you get in rhythm.”
The Lightning have a six-game road trip in December, playing eight of 11 on the road in one stretch. In January, they have a stretch of six of eight on the road. The longest home-stand is five games and the best home stretch before the break starts Jan. 21 when they play eight of 10 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
All of it will be a test of their ability to stay on an even keel.
“Our mental toughness is going to be challenged more than ever,” Tocchet said. “This is a crucial point for this team in how we set ourselves up for the downhill part of the schedule.”