With just nine games remaining in the regular season including tonight’s home matchup against the Florida Panthers, the postseason is fast approaching for a Tampa Bay Lightning team that will make its eighth playoff appearance in 22 seasons barring an epic collapse down the stretch.
And the Lightning are playing some of their best hockey of the season currently.
The Bolts went 3-0-0 last week, beating a trio of Atlantic Division heavyweights in Montreal (4-2), Detroit (3-1) and Boston (5-3). They’re 7-2-1 over their last 10 and have 10 wins in their last 14.
So are the Lightning peaking at the right time?
“We’ve really done a pretty good job of starting to realize that we need to be at our best and make it routine and automatic going into the playoffs,” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “We’re starting to really kind of bring that every single night and every shift.”
Of the Lightning’s last 10 victories, six have come against teams currently in the postseason mix or on the fringe fighting to get in.
“We’re getting the wins like we need to against tough teams, desperate teams, so that’s positive,” Boyle said. “Yeah, I think we can just keep climbing, keep getting better.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said the Bolts have done a good job correcting mistakes to play well down the stretch.
“Scary thing is, I still think we can improve,” Stamkos said. “We’ve put bits and pieces together, but it’s just that consistency you want heading into the playoffs. We still have some areas to improve, but we’re finding different ways to win and that creates confidence and then you can work on the little things.”
Stamkos said where the Lightning finish in the standings isn’t as important as making the playoffs and being at your best heading into them.
“You look at previous years, it doesn’t matter what seed you finish, it’s how you’re playing heading into this run and into the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “We want to make sure we continue that, and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far.”
The Lightning have won 11 straight games at home in regulation against divisional opponents, a level that hasn’t been reached since 1984-85 when the Philadelphia Flyers won 13 versus their Patrick Division rivals according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The last time the Lightning lost to an Atlantic foe at Amalie Arena was the second game of the season when the Ottawa Senators escaped with a 3-2 shootout win.
“I think it’s just we take a lot of pride in playing here,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We love playing in front of the fans. Does it have something to do with visiting teams have to swing down to Florida on a bit of a road trip and play either (Tampa Bay and Florida) and sometimes on a back-to-back? I’m sure that is a part of it, but you still have to win them and we’ve done our part at home.”
The Lightning’s 29 home victories rank first in the NHL and is a franchise record. The Bolts will try to get win No. 30 at home tonight against the Panthers.
“I think just the way we’ve played here, we’ve made it tough for teams,” Cooper said. “And I think when teams come in, they understand this is going to be a tough game for them.”
Tampa Bay has four home games remaining and two against Atlantic Division opponents, Florida tonight and Boston on April 11 in the regular season finale.
Of the Bolts final nine games, seven are versus the Atlantic.
“When we looked at the last 20 games of the season, we were playing a lot of teams in our division, and those are obviously the big momentum games, especially down the stretch,” Stamkos said. “When you can have kind of your destiny controlled in your own hands by being able to play all these teams, it makes it for an interesting last couple weeks of the season and for us a confidence builder.”
Cedric Paquette continued to skate in a normal practice jersey but didn’t take part in morning skate line rushes and will not play tonight according to Cooper, who said the rookie forward is still day-to-day.
Cooper expects to see Paquette on the upcoming road trip, but it’s looking more and more likely Paquette (upper-body injury) will not be ready to play in the current homestand finale Thursday against Nashville.
Also, when asked whether defenseman Braydon Coburn (lower-body injury) is still on track to return for the playoffs, Cooper said it’s “way to early” to tell.
“We get down to those last couple games (of the regular season), then we can start talking about Coburn,” Cooper said. “There’s no point even bringing up Coburn again until that week.”