When the Tampa Bay Lightning played their first two games against the Boston Bruins this season, they were a much different team than they are today.
Albeit it only eight games separate the Bolts from a 5-0 whitewash led by Tuukka Rask and company in mid-October, yet, much like the statements heard around the locker room after that loss suggest, it proved to be a wake-up call for the boys in blue.
Since, the team has seen a total turnaround, losing just one of those eight contests played, a loss that could have actually fell in their favor, while rounding it out with just their second win in franchise history against the Detroit Red Wings in a 3-2 overtime victory Saturday.
“I think we’re a better team now than we’ve shown the first couple weeks of the season,” Martin St. Louis said. “Our whole team game and commitment to what we’re trying to do have improved. There’s been more repetition and time spent in the trenches. We’ve had a lot of valuable experience gained from the first 15 games or so.”
Earning the win against Detroit was exactly what the Lightning needed heading into the middle game of a three-game road trip in which they look to avoid their third straight loss of the year to the Bruins.
“We are extremely aware we’re playing in tough buildings against really good teams,” St. Louis said. “To start the road trip with a big win in Detroit is definitely a confidence booster. It was a big test and we’re just looking to have it carry over into tomorrow afternoon.”
In addition to the quality goaltending the Bolts have received from netminder Ben Bishop they’ve also played a much more balanced game, which St. Louis said is how you win in this league on a consistent basis.
THIRD LINE THRILLER
One place the team can attribute their overall balance too is the third line’s recent contributions.
Saturday’s game in Detroit saw the Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik trio get a lot of good opportunities in front of the net. The Red Wings seemed unable to figure them out.
It was also the second consecutive game that Panik began to dig himself out of a hole he seemed to be stuck in for a good stretch of the campaign thus far.
“He went through a tough stretch to open the season, but he’s starting to claw back and turn those minuses into pluses and he’s deserved his ice time,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “His improved play was never more evident that the winning goal. The more he realizes that’s the way he needs to play, and he’s been doing that lately, the more ice time he’s going to get.”
According to Panik, it’s just been merely going back to the basics of his game and it’s led to some confidence he has been lacking as of late.
“I think I’m focusing on the simple things like shooting the puck and playing hard every shift,” he said. “I feel comfortable on the ice and that’s good. I just have to do the small important things and eventually it will go my way.”
Panik has notched two assists in his past two games to go along with a plus-2 rating. He’s also steadily seen his ice time begin to increase again.
RISING TO THE OCCASION
Entering Monday afternoon’s game against the Bruins, Steven Stamkos and St. Louis are a combined minus-3 with zero points versus Boston.
“Our challenge, we need to score some goals against them,” Cooper said. “One of the lines I’m leaning on to score goals is Stamkos’ line and I think this is going to be a big challenge for them.”
It might just seem that this is perfect timing for Stamkos and company however, as the top-line center has seven goals in his past six games to go along with an eight-game point streak, which started back on October 24 when Stamkos notched two goals and two assists.
Cooper said that line’s biggest challenge will be stifling Boston’s defense, which he calls “arguably one of the best in the league.”