The Tampa Bay Lightning have started to hit their stride of late, winning three-consecutive games and six of their last eight.
What hasn't been impressive, however, is the list of teams the Lightning have beaten over that stretch: Buffalo (3x), the New York Rangers, Chicago and Anaheim.
None of those four are in a playoff position currently and, frankly, probably won't be in one by the end of the regular season.
But tonight's opponent, the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, will certainly provide a test for a Lightning team looking to extend their win streak to a season-long four games tonight at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop).
The Lightning have been beating the teams they're supposed to beat during their current run.
Now it's time to show their recent success is no fluke and prove they're contenders and not pretenders tonight against the Blues.
Video: Pregame | Jon Cooper
"I think we've made some strides since the last time we played them, so it's going to be a good test to see where we're at as a group," Lightning forward and St. Louis native Pat Maroon said.
Eight nights earlier, the Lightning dropped a 3-1 decision in St. Louis, the Bolts netting the game's opening goal on Anthony Cirelli's late first-period marker but surrendering three straight to lose. Following that defeat, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said his team played one of its poorest games of the season, the numerous turnovers by the Bolts particularly costly.
The Lightning hope to show just how far they've come in a little over a week with a better effort tonight against the Blues.
"The big thing I think any team will tell you that's won (a Stanley Cup), you've got to be able to keep the puck out of your net," Cooper said. "That's what they do as good as anybody. They don't give you a lot, and they play a pretty predictable game in the sense that all the guys, they just stay with the same game plan for 60 minutes and they can wear you down because they've got a big, physical group. I think if there's one thing we've got to do a little bit better is get to the inside of them, create a little more traffic, make it harder on their goaltender. We do that and special teams, we keep our little run of successful special teams, we'll hopefully have a better outcome."
In the three games since that loss in St. Louis, the Lightning have won all three, outscoring their opponents a combined 15-6. And that's without, for stretches, Nikita Kucherov, who missed the Chicago win with an upper-body injury suffered late in the second period in that St. Louis loss, and captain Steven Stamkos, who will miss his third-straight game tonight with a lower-body injury.
"You look at some of the goals we're scoring and the chances we get (lately), they're shots from the outside from distance, but there's traffic, there's tips, there's taking the goalie's eyes away," Cooper said. "That's what you have to do to score. You're going to get those couple of nice goals from the outside and on odd-man rushes, but you're going to need that extra one. Usually it comes in the dirty fashion. That's what we've been preaching, especially since the St. Louis game, and that's been paying off."
Tonight's game against St. Louis offers the Lightning a chance to continue that successful gritty, determined, wear-you-down style of play against a team that is one of the best in all the League at doing it.
"We've been harping on what we need to do to be better as a group, and I think if you go back and look at film, I think turnovers and the puck management has been costing us in games," Maroon said. "I think we've been doing a better job of that, focusing on that. I think guys are all buying into the system. I think our defensive game has been really good, really strong defensively. But I think, again, we're letting teams shoot off the rush or making plays off the rush where we can limit that. We've been doing a good job of that, so we've just got to continue growing as a group and keep doing the little things that makes us better."
The Lightning will be missing a couple key players in tonight's rematch against the Blues. Stamkos will have to sit out his third-straight game as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury he said he sustained in the first St. Louis game and tweaked two nights later in the first period against Chicago.
Video: Injury Update | Stamkos
Stamkos skated on his own before Tampa Bay's optional morning skate and was a full participant in the ensuing team skate. The Lightning captain said he feels good, and how his body responds to today's strenuous workout will determine whether he can return for either or both games of a weekend back-to-back set starting Friday in Washington, D.C.
"That's kind of the plan if everything continues to feel well," Stamkos said. "We'll monitor how it feels after I skated this morning on my own for a bit and then with the guys here, did some extra work, see how it reacts to that, but so far so good."
Defenseman Erik Cernak will also have to sit the next two games as he serves a suspension for his head-high hit on Buffalo's Rasmus Dahlin on Monday. Cernak said he reached out to Dahlin Tuesday to apologize for the hit and let him know it was accidental.
"Obviously, I didn't want to hurt Dahlin," Cernak said. "I tried to just play the puck first and then box him first. There was I think an unlucky situation. I was texting him yesterday. He said he will be okay, and that it's just hockey. I'm glad he responded to me, and hopefully I will be back soon."