After four days without a game, the Tampa Bay Lightning will retake the ice Friday when they host the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Lightning spent the previous 10 days on the road, playing five games against teams from the Western Conference. The Bolts close out February versus one more Western team before getting into the Atlantic Division-heavy portion of the schedule in March.
“We have a tough month,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop said. “We talked about how hard February was going to be, but now we’re playing all of our division, pretty much all of March is every (team) in our division a couple times. It’s really going to be able to set yourself apart from other teams one way or the other. It’s going to be important to play these games night in and night out a full 60 minutes and not have these lapses.”
Tampa Bay plays five games in nine days starting with the Blackhawks. Four of those five will come at Amalie Arena.
“You’ve got to manage your travel. We’ve been doing that fairly well,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, referring to the team’s 3-2 record on its West Coast trip. “Now we’ve got a stretch of home games, we’ve got to take advantage of these home games.”
With 20 games remaining in the regular season, the sprint is on to qualify for the playoffs and postseason positioning. Cooper said the Lightning don’t need to change their approach with a quarter of the season remaining but rather fine-tune the way they play for the stretch run.
“You can’t change your mindset,” he said. “You can’t change the way things go. You can’t build these last 20 games up, and then, if you’re fortunate to make the playoffs, then all of a sudden what do you have left? It’s just got to be that consistent, ‘Let’s go out there and try to improve on our game. Let’s try to master what we’ve been doing all year,’ and we’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.”
Lightning defenseman Matt Carle continued to wear a red, no-contact jersey at practice, but the Bolts’ blue liner was a near-full participant today, taking part in virtually every drill. Carle is nearing the six-week mark since his surgery to repair torn adductors in his lower abdomen. The prognosis was the veteran defenseman would miss six to eight weeks from the date of the surgery. Tuesday, March 3, when the Bolts host Buffalo, would be exactly six weeks.
Although Cooper is happy with Carle’s progress, the coach doesn’t expect him to be back on the ice next week.
“He’s skating around, but anytime you’re still in the red jersey, you’re still in the red jersey,” Cooper said. “It’s good to see him out there, but…he’s still a couple weeks away.”
Cooper said Carle’s physical status is nearly back to 100%, but the mental state could take longer to recover.
“He had surgery,” Cooper said. “When you start feeling better than it becomes a mental thing, and then once you cross that bridge, you’re good. But…I’m still looking like two weeks from now until we really get to see, ‘Ok, he might be back in.’”
The Sticks of Fire supporters group that occupies Section 307 of Amalie Arena and provides a bit of European-style soccer chanting to Lightning hockey games is planning to make the nearly four-hour journey by bus to Sunrise on Sunday to watch the Bolts’ road contest against the Florida Panthers.
Bishop typically acknowledges the group after games by pointing their way and has talked before about the charge he and his teammates get from the atmosphere they provide. Bishop said having the group make the trek to the BB&T Center will be a welcome sight for the Lightning.
“I’ve had a chance to meet some of those guys this year, more so than last, and they’re all great guys, great people,” Bishop said. “They’re all big fans, and what they do for us, it means a lot to the players. We hear them, we see them, we know they’re there, and they put so much pride and passion into it.
“It’s just a lot of fun for us to know that they have our backs.”
Bishop said it’s easy to hear the group when they’re playing at home. But what about when they’re on the road in a hostile environment?
“I’m sure we will (hear them) when we’re in Florida,” he deadpanned.