This was a game the old Lightning would have lost. That Lightning team which struggled through a slow start that placed it deep down the list of Eastern Conference teams wouldn’t have rebounded from a 2-1 first-period deficit in which it was outshot 20-5. Not against a playoff-bound opponent like Montreal.
Then again, that was the old Lightning.
A puck that bounced off Canadiens’ goaltender Carey Price here, a Steve Downie shot that hit a body in front and bounded over Price’s pad there, mixed with a few highlight reel saves from Mike Smith and Tampa Bay finished a crucial homestand 4-1 with a 5-3 victory.
The win moved the Lightning into 11th place in the playoff standings, but more importantly, signaled a resounding confirmation of just how far this team has come in such a short time.
“When you’re winning, the bounces go your way,” Smith said. “A month and a half ago, those goals went in our net. Now we’re playing to win instead of playing not to lose. Just that type of mentality and effort on the ice shows the type of team we’re becoming.”
Added center Jeff Halpern, “When you’re winning, it’s easier to win and when you’re losing, it’s easier to lose,” he said. “The way we’re playing lately, it’s becoming easier for us to win than it was earlier this season.”
The victory over Montreal, Tampa Bay’s seventh in its past 11 games, was the third on the homestand against teams ahead of it in the conference standings. It also was a critical first step in returning a sense of home-ice advantage to the St. Pete Times Forum. While the Lightning’s eight home wins are still tied for the league’s fewest, players admit opponents are finding what may have been considered a very winnable road game earlier this season isn’t the case anymore.
“For us to get in the playoff race, you’ve got to get wins versus teams ahead of you,” Smith said. “Most of all, you’ve got to win on home ice. You’ve got to establish a dominance at home. It’s what the fans deserve and it sure feels nice for everyone in this locker room.”
Maybe most importantly, the victorious homestand makes the next six-game home stretch – the team’s longest of the season and beginning Feb. 7 against the New York Islanders - even more critical. Within striking distance of an improbable playoff berth, the Lightning play three of the four teams behind it in the conference standings.
To a man, Tampa Bay players know they’ve played themselves into second-half relevance thanks to their recent resurgence. What’s more, they know this is a critical opportunity they may not see again this season.
“We’re not scoreboard watching, but we definitely have huge games coming up,” Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said. He then admitted the key to Tampa Bay’s turnaround hasn’t just come from its play in front of fans. It’s developed from the effort players have given when no one outside the coaching staff is watching.
“I like the way the team has been practicing,” Tocchet said. “Even after a loss or a good win, the guys come in to work hard. I haven’t seen many bad practices and that translates into resilience on the ice.”
For star right winger Martin St. Louis
, the explanation wasn’t nearly as complex, but just as accurate.
“When we play with this type of effort,” St. Louis said, “we are a tough team to play.”