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Schedule quirks continue for Bolts but now they could prove beneficial

Schedule consistency gives the Lightning a chance to settle into a rhythm

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning are feeling good back in Tampa following a pair of wins over the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden.

The Lightning had three days off following their latest triumph: a 5-3 victory over the Sabres in the second half of a back-to-back set. Wednesday, the Bolts returned to home ice at AMALIE Arena to practice and prepare for a rematch against the New York Rangers, a team that scored four-consecutive goals to defeat the Lightning 4-1 in New York on October 29, four days before the Bolts departed for Sweden.

The Lightning survived the grind of multiple extended road trips over the first month of the season: a six-game trip in the opening weeks that started with a back-to-back in the south, reconvened for three games in Canada and finished in Boston; a three-games-in-four-nights stay in New York City followed by a week in Sweden, a 14-day stretch away from Tampa.

Now, the Lightning must survive, well, the grind.

Video: Cooper on being back home

Starting with Thursday's game against the Rangers, Tampa Bay will play pretty much every other day until the Christmas break. Just three times over this stretch will the Lightning have two days between games rather than one. Sprinkled in are a pair of home-and-road back-to-backs.

With so few days off, the Lightning's resilience will be tested.

But, then again, maybe the consistency in games will result in improved consistency in the team's play. The fragmented schedule over the first month of the season certainly didn't help the Lightning in this regard.

Play a game, three days off.

Play another game, two nights off.

Long road trips.

Home games few and far between.

The lack of routine left the Lightning's game, at times, lacking.

Now, with games every other night, the Lightning have a chance to round their game into form and keep it there.

"We've got to build on what happened in Sweden," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's going to be nice to play a little bit at home. I know we go on the road next week, but that'll be a little different too because that'll be the dads trip so it should be a lot of fun in that regard. But, it'll be nice here come end of November and some December to get a little bit of rhythm at home. Hopefully we can get some traction. We've only played 15 games. I think there's some teams in the league that have already played 20. We've got a little bit of catching up to do, and, unfortunately, it's going to be back-to-backs and a lot of games kind of mushed together. If you've got your game in order and we've prepared for this, we should be alright."

Consider, it was at this point last season when the Lightning really took off en route to their NHL-record-tying 62-win regular season. Starting November 13, the Lightning played every other day until completing the pre-Christmas break portion of the schedule December 22 at Edmonton. Only once over that stretch did the Bolts have more than a day between games. And yet, the Lightning surged to a 16-3-1 record over that five-week span and went on an eight-game win streak while starting a 16-game point streak that wouldn't end until January 5 and was the second-longest in franchise history.

Entering that November 13 game, the Lightning were in second place in the overall NHL standings, two points behind Nashville. By Christmas, they were firmly in control of the top spot in the League, six points ahead of second place Toronto.

They would never relinquish that spot heading the standings the rest of the season.

Clearly, the consistent game schedule was beneficial to the Lightning, and they're hoping for a repeat this season.

"I think it can help," Gourde said of the play-every-other-day setup. "I think you don't really lose your rhythm, your momentum. It's just transferring to the next game, and I think that's going to be a key aspect of the next few weeks."

Video: Gourde on getting back to work

It doesn't hurt either that 16 of Tampa Bay's next 22 games will be played at AMALIE Arena. The Lightning have played just five home games this season, one of which was played nearly 5,000 miles away from AMALIE Arena in Stockholm. Only Minnesota has played as few home games to start the season, and the Wild have stumbled to a 6-11-1 record and are tied for last in the overall NHL standings.

"It's a lot of fun playing (at AMALIE Arena), and it's always fun when you're playing in front of your home fans and you have that energy that they bring," Bolts blueliner Braydon Coburn said. "It's good for the body to cut down on a little bit of the travel. You're able to sleep in your own bed. You're at home and not at some hotel. Those things are all positive, and it goes a long way to kind of keeping you more fresh."

The Lightning got plenty of time to practice over the first month of the season, particularly in Sweden where they held four training sessions before even playing a game in Stockholm.

Now it's time to put practice to performance.

"We practiced a lot before this upcoming part of the season, and now I think it's really good to go in games and be ready and play every other night," said Gourde, who enters Thursday's game against the Rangers having scored two consecutive game-winning goals and is on a three-game goal streak. "That's fun for us, and I think we're excited for that stretch of the season."

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