Going into last season's All-Star Game, the Tampa Bay Lightning were 27-18-4 with 58 points through 49 games but benefited greatly from a seven-game win streak that started in Edmonton and concluded right before the All-Star break with a 2-1 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, themselves having won a franchise-record 12 games in a row entering AMALIE Arena.
This season has seen the Bolts wrestle with inconsistency throughout the first half. Yet, their record, 22-22-6 with 50 points through 50 games, isn't that much different coming out of the All-Star break as it was a year ago, sans the winning streak.
And with nearly the same roster that advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and a second-consecutive Eastern Conference Final a year ago, the belief remains in the Lightning locker room this team can go on a similar run as it did last season to get back into playoff position.
As the Bolts enter a crucial four-game homestand starting Tuesday against Atlantic Division rival Boston, they sit six points back of the Bruins for third place in the Atlantic but with two games in hand. The Bolts are also six points back of Philadelphia for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
The key for the Lightning will be to string together consecutive wins like they did at various points over the second half of last season. The Bolts haven't won consecutive games this season since beating Detroit and St. Louis on December 20 and 22, respectively.
Before that, they hadn't won back-to-back contests since going on a four-game win streak November 14-19.
"I think we're fortunate other teams haven't been doing as well either," said Lightning winger Alex Killorn, who has three assists over the last two games. "Right now, we have an opportunity, a couple games at home to get some much-needed points against teams we're right behind and trying to catch."
The Lightning are hoping to carry over play from the six-game road trip they completed right before the All-Star Break. The Bolts went 2-2-2 and earned just six of 12 points from the trip, but the way they played and competed was encouraging.
"We felt, I've said this time and time again, we could have been on the winning end of every single one of those games," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Whether it was our special teams or the goaltending or not scoring, it seemed to be one little thing that held us back a little bit…There are a lot of times when you're playing well and you're not getting rewarded, but soon after that, you do get rewarded. Hopefully, this will be the case because the guys gave a heck of an effort…Overall, our play has been pretty solid."
The key to the Bolts' better play has been a renewed focus on the defensive zone. Under Cooper, the Lightning have decreased their goals against average each season. In 2015-16, they ranked fifth best in the NHL at 2.41 goals per game, their highest-ever ranking in franchise history.
This season is the first under Cooper the Bolts have slid backward in goals against, letting in 2.88 goals per game and ranking 22nd out of 30 teams in the league.
On the recent road trip, however, the Bolts gave up two or less goals in regulation in five of the six games.
"If you're going to do that, you're going to give yourself a really good chance to win," Cooper said. "And it's just one of those rare occasions where we weren't getting the wins when statistically you should be getting wins. But hopefully here, some of the guys that are used to putting the puck in the net will start doing that and we'll keep up the defensive effort."
That's been a microcosm of the Lightning season so far: When one area of concern is addressed and improved, another issue arises. Out west, the Bolts shored up their defense but scored just 13 goals in six games, barely more than two a game. As the defense starts to come around, the offense goes dry.
It's tough to remain positive with so many setbacks, but Lightning center Tyler Johnson said the makeup of this team is resilient enough to overcome the obstacles thrown in front of it.
"We have a lot of veteran presence in this room, a lot of guys that have been through a lot," Johnson said. "You always say the season's like a roller coaster where you have your highs and your lows, but the best teams, they don't get too high, they don't get too low. You have to stay even keel.
"That's the reason why the last couple years we've had a really good team. We just kind of stayed the course, stay to our strengths and just keep on plugging away. Obviously, it gets frustrating, but that's when we have other guys on the team that come up to you, make you laugh, get a joke or whatever it may be and you kind of forget about it. You've just got to turn the page and move on."
The Lightning are ready to turn the page from a subpar first half of the season.
Hopefully, the four day break from the All-Star Game will be the reset button the Bolts need to turn the corner on what has been up to now a disappointing season.