Lightning coach Guy Boucher often talks about the choice anyone can make when faced with a difficult situation. Do they see it as a challenge or a threat?
His job, he says, is to make sure it’s looked at as a challenge and that’s just how his team attacked a brutally tough schedule in the first 49 games of the season. The Lightning did not just “survive” their trip through the jungle in a stretch of 22 road games out of 34 (19-11-4), which included an even more draining run of 15 away from home out of 21 (10-8-3). They prospered.
The Bolts come out of the all-star break in first place in the Southeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference at 31-15-5 – a franchise best through 51 games.
Not only have they achieved more than most predicted so far, when they return tonight for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, they still have 10 games remaining in a monster 12-game home stand – the longest in the NHL since the 1975-76 season.
“It’s a great feeling,” Lightning center Nate Thompson said. “We put ourselves in a great position here. We have to look at this as a great opportunity. We can’t think, take a breath, and take our foot off the gas pedal because we’ve got all these games at home. We have to push even harder.”
This long a home stand is far from easy. The California Golden Seals went 4-7-1 from November 26 to December 28 in 1975. Gilles Meloche, the current goaltending coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins, played 11 of them in net.
Boucher said he experienced a similar stretch in juniors and it was “the worst month” of the season. He plans to break things up with non-hockey team days as well as a trip to Naples/Ft. Myers to try to combat the complacency that could creep in, being at home for 35 days in all. Thompson said the team just has to avoid making it seem like the movie “Groundhog Day,” waking up and doing the same thing every day, and get into a rut.
“We’ll get them out, make them feel that their comfort zone is not necessarily what we need for the entire month,” Boucher said. “What I do like about it is that we are playing very tough teams. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s going to be fun.”
The Lightning play Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia twice, Pittsburgh, Washington, Detroit and it ends with a game against the recently-rejuvenated New Jersey Devils, February 25.
“At this point in the season, everybody is getting better, too,” Thompson said. “It’s not going to be an easy stretch.”
Brett Clark said one advantage to being home for a long stretch is the wear and tear on the body is not as tough without the travel involved.
Remaining focused will be the objective.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of family in town,” Clark said. “People look at the schedule and say, ‘I’m coming down.’ You’ve got a lot of distractions. As a group, we have to come together and put all that aside and come out and compete for 60 minutes every night.”
The Lightning are in a good place.
They want more.
“We’re very happy where we are, but we can improve a lot,” Clark said. “There’s little things we can work on, tweak our game, to get it where we want it to be. It’s a work in progress every day.”
Captain Vincent Lecavalier said the Lightning won’t change anything in their preparation. The goal is to use the comforts of home as a benefit.
“It’s definitely an important part of our season,” Lecavalier said. “We have to take advantage of it.”
After the home stand ends, the Lightning leave for a three-game trip before returning home for four more games.
“At the beginning of the year, we knew we were in a tough situation with how many road games we had,” wing Teddy Purcell said. “But we knew if we put ourselves in a good position how exciting it would be to try and build on a lead and separate ourselves from teams. That’s the situation we’re in and that’s how we’ve got to look at it. We’re happy to be home for a month, but we have to take it one game at a time and not get too carried away.”
There are certainly some potholes to avoid. But the Lightning has numbers on their side.
Tampa Bay has points in 18 of 22 home games (16-4-2), second only to Vancouver in the league (17-3-5) in percentage. The Lightning handed the Canucks one of those home losses. The Bolts are first in the NHL in penalty killing (89.2) and fourth on the power play (25.3) at home.
“Our season’s been pretty unique,” veteran forward Adam Hall said. “Hopefully, this will be good for us. We can kind of find a good rhythm with our fans behind us.
“We enjoy our building and our fans. We take pride in playing well here and we want to make it difficult for teams coming into Tampa.”