1.Following the Lightning’s win last Tuesday in Montreal, head coach Jon Cooper stated that he felt that his team “was starting to mature a little bit”. The team had won three of four on the road trip and had rallied from deficits to win in Ottawa and Montreal. During my pregame interview with him before last Friday’s game against Buffalo, I asked him how they were maturing. He replied that when adversity hit during a contest, the players were no longer altering their game. Instead, he stated, they stayed composed, stuck together and worked their way out of trouble.
To Cooper’s point, what’s been especially noticeable from the press box is how consistently the team has played over the past few weeks. No matter the score or the opponent, the Lightning are executing their game-plan and, for the most part, dictating play. This has been a big factor in the team’s 7-1-0 record over the last eight games.
2.In last week’s column, I wrote about some of the team’s goals for the second half. One of them I mentioned was whittling down the Goals Against Per Game number. Solid team “d” goes hand-in-hand with consistent play in all three zones. So based on Cooper’s comment, I’ll add an addendum to last week’s piece. The Lightning want to reach a level of consistency throughout the second half that is machine-like. Teams that have reached the point where they make the right play automatically, without hesitation, are very tough to beat. The Bolts have looked “machine-like” in a number of these recent victories.
3.This two-game trip to Philadelphia and Boston will be an interesting one, because of how the Lightning have played in those cities – and against those teams. In the past decade, the Lightning have always seemed to play well in Philly. The Lightning have won 12 of their last 17 regular season games played in Philadelphia. Overall, the Bolts have gone 11-1-1 in their last 13 games against the Flyers.
Then there’s Boston. Ugh. In franchise history, the Lightning have won only four regular season games in Boston. (They also took Game One of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, but dropped Games Two, Five and Seven in Beantown). There have been losses of every imaginable kind over the years – close losses, blowouts, and controversial defeats.
One would figure that a team with so much futility against a single opponent is due to break the skid. The Bolts hope that happens Tuesday in Boston, but not on Monday in Philadelphia.
4.The fourth-place Bruins have had, by their standards anyway, a disappointing season so far. Past the halfway point of the year, they find themselves in an unfamiliar position – in the mix of clubs scrambling to secure playoff positioning. But they enter Tuesday’s contest having won three in a row and seem to be hitting their stride just in time for the Lightning’s visit, which will mark the first of four games between the clubs this year. We’ve heard a lot this year about “measuring stick” games, both in terms of how the Bolts fare against opponents and how opponents fare against the Bolts. To me, Tuesday’s game will be, as much as any other game so far this season, a measuring stick for the Lightning. The game will be a challenge for the Lightning (and not only because they’ll be playing the second game of a back-to-back while Boston will not have played since Saturday afternoon). From my point of view, the Bruins, no matter their place in the standings, are still the team to beat in the division. One that the Lightning didn’t beat in four games last season.
5.The Bruins seemed to have turned a corner in their play (6-1-3 in last 10), but they aren’t the only Eastern Conference club riding a hot streak. The New York Islanders (9-3-1 in last 13), Montreal Canadiens (9-2-1 in last 12), New York Rangers (13-1-0 in last 14), Washington Capitals (12-1-4 in last 17), Florida Panthers (11-5-4 in last 20) all are banking points regularly. And, of course, as mentioned earlier, the Bolts have won seven of their last eight games.
The streaks from Caps and Rangers have allowed those clubs to separate themselves from the teams behind them in the Metropolitan Division. Columbus and Philadelphia are now 13 points behind the Rangers and Caps. One has the feeling that, short of a incredible turnaround, the Blue Jackets and Flyers will not be able to work themselves back into the playoff picture.
Also, the excellent play from all these clubs puts pressure on the teams around them. The Lightning, specifically, cannot afford to exhale, even though they own the most points in the Eastern Conference.
6.Last year, the California trip was considered the most treacherous for Eastern teams. The Kings, Ducks and Sharks regularly mowed down Eastern clubs. Their domination was part of a greater league-wide storyline in 2013-14: that there were more elite teams in the West than East. With all these aforementioned Eastern teams playing so well this year, though, is the West still as dominant – and deep? The Rangers just completed a three-game road sweep of the California teams. Earlier this year in SoCal, the Islanders beat the Kings and Ducks on back-to-back nights. And the Panthers took two of three during their California visit.
Even in a year such as 2013-14, in which Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton all missed the playoffs last year, the Western Canadian trip usually contains some potholes for Eastern teams. But this year, many of the Eastern Conference clubs are winning at least two out of three from Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton (including the Lightning). The Rangers won all three games in Western Canada. The Panthers, with a win on Sunday in Edmonton, would also complete the three-game sweep.
The “new” hardest Western location might be Nashville, where the Predators are 16-2-1 through 19 home games. The Lightning have yet to make their California trip. That swing, which will also include games in Arizona and Colorado, takes place in February. As does their single visit to Nashville.
7.A tip of the cap to colleagues Rick Peckham and Bobby “The Chief” Taylor. Both were battling bad colds during the recent road trip, but persevered through all four games. It’s not fun to broadcast a game with a sore throat or persistent cough. One of the worst I’ve endured came at Madison Square Garden in December of 2010. I had just started feeling unwell the night before on Long Island calling a game between the Lightning and Islanders, but by the time the puck was dropped at MSG, I was coughing uncontrollably. I felt as though I were wheezing rather than speaking. Naturally, the game went into overtime. Then the shootout. Then 11 rounds deep in the shootout. But the Lightning prevailed. Which made it all worthwhile!