On the last day of February, the Tampa Bay Lightning practiced at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum prior to boarding a plane Saturday afternoon for Fort Lauderdale.
The Lightning face the Florida Panthers Sunday evening at the BB&T Center, signaling the start of a jam-packed March. The Bolts play 15 games, their most of any month. Of Tampa Bay’s final 19 regular season games, 15 are against Atlantic Division foes.
Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said there’s no advantage to playing divisional rivals or opponents from the opposite conference this time of the season. In February, all 12 Lightning games were versus Western Conference teams.
“Everyone has the same schedule at the end of 82 games,” Bowness said. “We’ve all played the same amount of games obviously in the same amount of days against the same opposition, so, again, there’s time the schedule, it hurts you, regardless who you’re playing, Atlantic or Western. It doesn’t matter because of the number of games.”
Managing the schedule is more important than who you play and when you play them, and the Lightning have been very good in that regard Bowness said.
“When we give the guys the day off and when to travel and those things, managing your travel and your schedule are absolutely huge,” he said. “It’s a big part of your season.”
During a two-on-one drill at Saturday’s practice, Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop took a wrist shot around the neck off the stick of Brian Boyle. Hedman and Boyle were the attackers in the odd-man rush. Hedman carried the puck into the zone and waited until edging past the lone defenseman in the middle before delivering an accurate cross-crease pass to Boyle.
The center lifted a one-timer toward goal, which caught Bishop up high, eliciting a few pained groans from the crowd.
Boyle skated over while Bishop briefly collected himself, ok but stunned. Boyle put his arm around Bishop’s neck to apologize and said something into the goalie’s ear.
The two smiled as Boyle headed back to the bench.
After practice, Bishop was asked if the puck got through his padding and mask. Bishop shook his head affirmatively.
“Wouldn’t you think padding nowadays would be so effective none of your body would be exposed?” came the follow-up question.
“Not exactly,” Bishop said, grinning.
Bishop won his fourth-straight start Friday night by blanking Chicago and has given up two goals or less in all four, a sign the 28-year-old goalie might be peaking at an opportune moment.
“He’s a quality goaltender, he’s an elite goaltender and this is the time of the year you want to see your guy -- and he’s the guy -- get hot,” Bowness said. “We hope that continues the way he played last night.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Matt Carle again wore a red, no-contact jersey but was on the ice for all of Saturday’s practice and even seemed to take a few more shifts than his teammates. Tuesday will be six weeks since the blue liner had surgery to repair torn adductors in his lower abdomen. At the time of the surgery, he was schedule to return in six to eight weeks…Bowness said the Bolts’ fourth line has been a big lift for the team this season, and, in particular, Boyle has had a major impact. The fourth line produced the opening goal against Chicago, Drouin making a highlight-reel, behind-the-back pass to the slot for Boyle to bury. “Brian Boyle is probably the best fourth-line center in the league at this point: 13 goals, key guy on faceoffs, key guy on the penalty kill and can play defense for us,” Bowness said.