As has been mentioned before, Lightning players targeted February as a challenging and telling month. Twelve games, all against the West, with eight on the road. A steady diet of tough opposition: two games each against the Blues, Kings and Ducks and single contests versus the Stars, Predators, Sharks, Coyotes, Avalanche and Blackhawks. In that group, only the Coyotes are not in the playoff mix. Nashville and Anaheim are first-place clubs, while the Blues and Blackhawks rank among the top point teams in the league. The Kings are the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Bolts would be playing the first 11 of those games, eight on the road, in a 20-day span.
To this point, the Lightning are nine games in and have posted a respectable 4-3-2 February record. Just as importantly, though, the Lightning have shown that they are as formidable a team as the clubs they’ve faced. They have quality wins over the Ducks (twice), Stars and Sharks. Despite losing in OT on February 3 in St. Louis, they outplayed the Blues for most of that game. In Nashville on February 10, against the top point team in the league, they rallied from a 2-0 third period deficit to force overtime.
The Lightning have had only two bad games this month – home losses to the Kings and Blues. And even the 4-2 defeat to L.A. wasn’t a complete clunker – the Bolts had an awful first period, but played much better in the final 40 minutes. As for the 6-3 loss to the Blues on February 12? OK, that was a clunker. But every team is going to have those on occasion. In fact, the Bolts have produced one or two of them every month this season (fortunately not more than one or two). Furthermore, one lopsided loss to the Blues does not mean that the Lightning don’t match up. They proved as much in the aforementioned earlier contest on February 3 in St. Louis.
There are still three games left this month, including the second half of a back-to-back in Colorado on Sunday and next Friday’s home contest against ‘Hawks. But no matter what happens in those final three February games, the Lightning have proved they can compete with the West’s best.
As detailed above, the month is road-heavy for the Bolts. Entering February, the Lightning were just 11-11-3 on the road. Heading into the February 3 game at St. Louis, the Lightning had dropped three consecutive road games, all in regulation, and hadn’t played crisply in any of those defeats.
But in February so far, the Lightning are 3-1-2 on the road. That record is the by-product of solid, consistent play. They’ve handled opposition surges well. They’ve scored timely goals. They’ve twice rallied from deficits to earn points (one win, one OTL) and have been able to push back after the other team scores. Their penalty kill, which has struggled on the road this year, has yielded just one goal in those six road games.
3.The California Swing
In the past few seasons, the California road swing has been one of the toughest trips in the league. Especially for Eastern Conference teams. The Sharks, Kings and Ducks often chewed up the opposition and sent them off without even one win in the three games.
That’s changed this year. Of the 16 Eastern Conference teams, 12 have completed the California swing. Montreal, Detroit, Ottawa and Pittsburgh are the remaining four. Only two of the 12 (Boston and Toronto) left California without a win. The other 10 have all taken at least one of the three. That list includes Buffalo and Carolina, the last-place teams in the Atlantic and Metropolitan Division. The Panthers, Islanders, Capitals, Devils and Lightning won two of the three while the Rangers completed a California sweep.
Former Lightning Head Coach John Tortorella often says: “Goaltending is the most important position, but defense is the hardest position.”
That’s because a defenseman is the last line of, well, defense, in front of the goalie. If a forward makes a bad read, he’s got defense behind him. A defenseman’s bad read can lead directly to an open chance for the opposition.
In so many ways this year, Brian Boyle has proven himself invaluable. He’s good on faceoffs. He’s responsible defensively. He’s been a regular on the penalty kill. He’s produced 12 goals (including two shorthanded). But in recent weeks, Boyle has helped fill in on defense during games in which one of the regular defenseman has become unavailable due to injury or a lengthy penalty. It’s true that Boyle has some experience on “D”, having played it earlier in his career. But it’s been several seasons since he was a blue-liner. Still, when he’s made the shift, he has fit in seamlessly. And he’s contributed. In Dallas on February 5, the Lightning and Stars were tied at three late in the third period. Back on defense, Boyle knocked down Jamie Benn at center ice with an open-ice body check and dislodged the puck. Moments later, after the Lightning had countered into the Dallas zone, Tyler Johnson deflected Boyle’s point shot into the net for the eventual game-winning goal.
Boyle’s ability to switch from forward to defense is no small feat, especially unexpectedly in the middle of game. If it were routine, more players would be doing it around the league.
5.How Valuable Are Games In Hand?
Thanks to their win Wednesday in Anaheim, the Lightning moved into a momentary tie for first place with Montreal atop the Atlantic Division. The Habs took the lead back on Thursday when they earned a point in an shootout loss to Florida. But despite their high ranking in the standings, the Bolts have played the most games in the league. In the Atlantic, Montreal has two games in hand and third-place Detroit has four games in hand. The Bruins and Florida Panthers, separated by only one point for the final Wildcard spot, also have multiple games in hand on the Lightning.
How important are these games in hand? As the saying goes, games in hand are only useful if they result in points gained. What often goes unsaid is that these games in hand usually are made up during a busy, intense, difficult stretch.
The Lightning’s remaining schedule contains two semi-lengthy breaks. The first of those occurs next week, when the Lightning have four days between games. Another four-day break happens in the final week of the regular season – originally, the Bolts and Canadiens were supposed to play a game that week, but the contest was moved to the opening week of the season because of a building conflict. Other than those two instances, the Lightning will be playing, for the most part, every other night.
So when and how do these other teams make up the games in hand? Through back-to-backs sets and three-game-in-four-night stretches, of course. Following their weekend back-to-back in Arizona and Colorado, the Bolts have only one set of back-to-back games remaining. Montreal has two left. That’s not bad. But the Habs will be dealing with a road-heavy schedule down the stretch. As for the other three Atlantic clubs in the playoff mix? Florida has five back-to-back sets left, while Red Wings and Bruins each have six.
The other part of this equation will be how the Lightning fare in head-to-head matchups against these foes. Beating a team with games in hand negates one of those games in hand. Of their final 22 games, the Bolts will play 15 within the Atlantic Division and 11 of those will be against the Canadiens (three), Red Wings (two), Bruins (three) and Panthers (three).