During his post-morning skate scrum with local media, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos casually mentioned the Lightning beginning a stretch of 10-straight games against teams currently holding a spot in the postseason, starting with tonight's contest against the Vegas Golden Knights at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop).
A quick check of the schedule and the standings confirms Stamkos' statement. The Lightning begin a three-game homestand tonight with games against Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders later this week. Pittsburgh is in second place in the Metropolitan Division and two points in front of the Lightning, while the Isles are in the second and final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. A back-to-back road trip to Columbus and Pittsburgh precedes another mini-homestand with contests at AMALIE Arena versus Edmonton and Philadelphia, the Flyers in the first wild card in the East. The Bolts cap off the difficult slate with a three-game road trip out west against Colorado, Vegas and Arizona, the Coyotes currently holding the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
In the next three-and-a-half weeks, the Lightning will get a clearer picture just how far they've come since struggling through the first month or so of the regular season.
Video: Stamkos on Bolts being back home
They'll also get a sense of just what they need to improve upon to continue to hold their own playoff position and find success once they, hopefully, make it there.
"It's going to be a great stretch for us to really see where we are," Stamkos said. "We're excited to be back home and get it going tonight."
Despite leveling up in the caliber of competition, Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said his team's approach remains the same.
"I don't think it should change anything," he said. "I think we've just got to go out there and play our game. I think it's a good test for us. Guys are excited. Kind of a measuring-stick game for us. We know night in and night out, it's going to be a battle every night. We want to come out with wins against these teams. To go on a stretch like this, I think it's going to be fun for us, it's going to be hard-fought games. It's good to be in these games."
When the Lightning take the ice tonight, it'll be their first time doing so at home in a game situation since a January 14 4-3 shootout victory over the Los Angeles, a 21-day stretch between games at AMALIE Arena for the Bolts. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper joked the home layoff was so long, his players had trouble recalling that mid-January contest.
Video: Cooper on match-up with Golden Knights
"This is how you know you've been on the road a long time. I asked the guys who the last team we played was at home, and after going through 10 guys, nobody got the right answer," Cooper remarked, smiling. "I didn't go to Heddy though because I knew Heddy would know. Yeah, nobody knew who our last home game was against, that's how long it's been."
Since playing that enigmatic last game at AMALIE Arena, the Bolts' momentum hasn't really slowed down. Tampa Bay went 4-1-1 in the six road contests since hosting the Kings and has solidified its hold on second place in the Atlantic Division while continuing to narrow the gap with division-leading Boston (the Lightning trail the Bruins by five points with a game in hand entering Tuesday).
Tampa Bay is arguably the hottest team in the NHL since the holiday break, going 15-2-1 over its last 18 games. The Lightning haven't lost two in a row over that stretch. They enter tonight's contest on a six-game home win streak, the second-longest active home win streak in the NHL (Vancouver is currently on a nine-game home win streak) and tied for the fourth-longest home win streak in the League this season.
"Good for us that we got to fight through this, we picked up some points on all those road trips, but now we've got…our next 10 games are all against teams that are in a playoff spot right now," Cooper said. "So, this will be a good gauge to see where we're at."