The Tampa Bay Lightning made a steady climb in the Atlantic Division standings during their seven-game win streak, moving up as high as second in the division.
Following a loss in Florida on Saturday, however, and with a few days off before hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight at Amalie Arena -- the Bolts final game before the All-Star break -- the Lightning have fallen to fourth in the Atlantic and are currently in a wild card spot should the playoffs begin today.
All of which shows: A) just how tight the standings are in the Eastern Conference and B) how the Lightning didn’t do themselves any favors with their slow start to the 2015-16 season.
“I don’t think anybody ever thinks about how important a start is because you don’t have to chase the game, and if things go south a little bit, you still have the ability to come back,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But if you don’t have a good start, you’re chasing it. Your playoffs have started at Christmas, and that’s a mental grind on you…We go 8-2 in our last ten and we’re in the wild card spot. I think we’re two points away from being out (of the playoffs). That’s going 8-2. So now we have to keep this going just to keep ourselves in the playoffs.”
A Lightning win tonight over the Maple Leafs would put the Bolts back in second place, tied with Detroit, in the Atlantic standings and five points behind Florida for first in the division.
Tampa Bay has had success at home versus Toronto in recent times too, the Lightning winning three straight and five of their last six at Amalie Arena over the Leafs.
Said Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan: “These are two important points that we desperately need.”
Cooper said Matt Carle, who got the start Saturday in Florida after being healthy scratched the previous three games, will be on the bench tonight. Cooper is going with Jonathan Marchessault in his place. Marchessault has been a healthy scratch in six of the Lightning’s last eight games but has six goals and five assists in the 25 games this season he’s been in the lineup.
Cooper also said backup goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy will start in net for the Bolts, his fourth start in the last eight games.
With Bishop headed for the All-Star Game this weekend in Nashville, Cooper said it was important to keep him rested while getting Vasilevskiy some more action to stay fresh.
“You’ve got to think that (Bishop) has played monster minutes all year, plus he’s not getting a break for the All-Star Game,” Cooper said. “So he’s going to be putting the pads on again. He’s going to play meaningful hockey I guess. He’s going to be competing. So this for us is a chance to get him a little bit of rest because he’s got to put the pads on again, and it gives us a chance to play the kid, who’s already beaten Toronto this year.”
Vasilevskiy made 33 saves on 37 shots on December 15 at the Air Canada Centre in a 5-4 overtime victory for the Bolts over the Leafs in the first meeting this season between the two teams. That victory kickstarted a five-game win streak for Vasilevskiy, who hasn’t lost since December 6 in Los Angeles.
Toronto fell to 2-6-2 over its last 10 games following a 5-1 loss in Florida to the Panthers Tuesday night.
But, like the Lightning, the Leafs fell victim to a few unlucky bounces in Sunrise and deserved a better fate according to Cooper.
“If you really watched, I think it was maybe six minutes left in the second, was it 2-1, and (the Leafs) were like buzzing,” Cooper said. “(Tyler) Bozak has an open net, it hits a skate, they’re like buzzing, buzzing, buzzing and then quick turnover and (Florida’s Jussi) Jokinen puts it in 3-1 and it’s game over. Kind of the way Florida’s been rolling, how they rolled on us the other night. Did I think we should be down 4-0? Probably not, but that’s the way things are going. People who wake up in the morning and say, ‘Oh well, Toronto lost 5-1.’ That’s not the way I saw the game.”
Cooper said any team coached by Mike Babcock, who is in his first season in Toronto, is going to be a tough team to play against.
“They work hard and they’re tight-checking and they more often than not play the game the right way,” Cooper said. “That’s why (Babcock’s) been as successful as he has.”
Babcock is in his 13th season coaching in the NHL and has been to the playoffs in 11 of those seasons, winning the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008 and finishing as runner-up to Pittsburgh the following year.
Cooper said Babcock is one of a handful of coaches in the NHL who consistently puts a hard-working, tight-checking team on the ice.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been involved in a game with Mike where it’s been a track meet,” Cooper said. “They’re not. They’re usually those games where you have to fight through checks, you have to fight through picks, you have to earn every inch of the game when you play his teams. Now he’s not the only coach like that. There are other coaches that do the same thing, but he fits in that mold. And they’re just hard games to play against and usually they’re close.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Tampa Bay has won five-consecutive games at Amalie Arena, the league’s third-longest active home win streak…Nikita Kucherov has yet to score this season on Wednesday (3 games), the only day of the week he hasn’t scored…Kucherov can set a Lightning season high for consecutive games with a point tonight. Kucherov is on an eight-game point streak and has a point in 16 of his last 17 games…Vladislav Namestnikov is +11 over his last nine games and has the top plus/minus on the Bolts (+15). Namestnikov is +15 on the road and even at Amalie Arena.