On road trips, Lightning Head Coach Jon Cooper likes to return home having gained more points than games played. So far this year, the Lightning have done a nice job of reaching that goal. On their early-season five game trip to Western Canada, Winnipeg and Minnesota, the Bolts gained six points. They also banked six points during their five-game trip in February to California, Arizona and Colorado. On their four-game trip in late December/early January, they also picked up six points. They’ve regularly hit the mark on their three-game and two-game trips this year as well. On Saturday afternoon, the Lightning begin their final five-game trip of the regular season. Once again, they’ll look to earn more points than games played. But with the playoffs approaching, the team has other goals in mind on the trip.
Clinch A Playoff Berth
Ok, this one may seem like a slam-dunk. The Bolts need only two points to secure a ticket to the postseason. Those points can come either from a Lightning win or a Boston regulation loss. But the Lightning haven’t clinched yet – and they’d like to nail that down as soon as they can.
Continue To Play “The Right Way”
This is a season-long aspiration. But since the All-Star Break ended, Lightning players and coaches have talked about honing their game as the postseason nears and “playing the right way”. The Lightning want to be hitting their stride when the playoffs begin and be “machine-like” in their game execution. For the most part, the Lightning have done it. Ryan Callahan commented during the recent six-game homestand that the Bolts “are playing their best hockey of the year right now”. In March, the Lightning are 8-3-1 and have only had, by my count, two bad games (March 1 at Florida and March 14 versus Winnipeg). In the other 10 contests, they’ve been able to execute their game-plan and carry play for much of the night. That includes Thursday’s loss to Nashville, a game in which they dominated puck possession despite the 3-2 defeat. It’s hard to play a perfect game – and the Lightning have seen their opponent surge at different points in these games – but for the most part, the Lightning are “playing the right way”. The Bolts are managing the puck well and, as a result, possessing the puck. They’re playing good team defense. They are getting excellent goaltending. And, as has been the case all season, they’re receiving balanced scoring throughout the lineup.
They’ll look to continue playing that way on the road trip. Executing well on the road will be a key to postseason success.
Handle Challenges From Playing Different Types Of Opponents
On this trip, the Lightning will face Montreal Canadiens, with whom they are jockeying for first place in the Atlantic Division. They’ll also see Ottawa and Florida, teams battling for the final Wildcard spot in the East. The Red Wings, with a five-point lead on Ottawa and Boston, are in a more secure spot than the Sens and Panthers, but could be in jeopardy if they suffer a season-ending swoon. Then there’s Toronto, well out of the playoff mix. Because these opponents are in different positions, they pose different challenges. As the Lightning saw first-hand on Tuesday against the Panthers, teams on the playoff bubble play with intense desperation. The Lightning can expect to face such desperation in the games at Ottawa and Florida (assuming Florida is still within striking distance of the Sens and Bruins by next weekend) and will need to match it.
The Habs have lost the first four games in the season series to the Lightning, but are coming off their best game of the four. That was in the Lightning’s 4-2 win at Amalie Arena on March 16. The Canadiens will be intent on picking up a win in their final regular season game against the Lightning. The same will be true in Detroit – the Red Wings have lost all three meetings to the Lightning so far in the season series. They’ll also be looking to put some distance between themselves and the clubs directly behind them in the standings. So while the Habs and Red Wings may not be playing for their post-season lives, they will be committed to getting a win against a team that’s had their number – and setting the stage for a potential postseason matchup with the Lightning.
Toronto has no such incentive, but there are different challenges for the Lightning when facing a team well out of the playoff picture. The Lightning played Buffalo and Toronto at Amalie Arena earlier in March and neither game was an easy one. The Lightning were back on their heels in the first period against the Sabres and leaned heavily on Ben Bishop during the second period versus the Leafs. Teams like the Sabres and Leafs, at this stage of the season, have nothing to lose and play a pressure-free game. The Lightning will need to be ready for such a challenge in Tuesday’s game against Toronto. Also, it’ll be the second game of a back-to-back following what figures to be a very intense contest the night before in Montreal.
Sharpen The Power Play
As mentioned earlier, the Lightning played a good overall game in their 3-2 loss to Nashville on Thursday. But the players weren’t happy with the power play, which went 0-5 and failed to generate any momentum. Thursday’s power play performance was a microcosm for what’s occurred during much of the year. After a scorching start to the season, the power play has dried up. Different combinations haven’t yielded any sort of consistent success. “Success” is defined not only by the number of goals scored, but also in terms of pressure generated and momentum gained. It is strange that the Lightning can lead the league in goals scored, yet struggle on the power play, which, at 18.1%, is currently in the bottom half of the league. There are seven regular season games remaining and the Lightning would love to regain some power play mojo before the end of the regular season. This five-game trip will hopefully serve as a springboard.
By next Sunday, we’ll know how many of these goals have been met. And if, as the Bolts have done often on their trips so far this year, they were able to bring home more points than games played.