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Well-traveled Bolts return home after two weeks on the road

The Lightning were encouraged by their performance in victories over Montreal and Boston to close out the six-game trip

by Bryan Burns /

The last time the Tampa Bay Lightning played at AMALIE Arena, the Rays were just beginning their playoff run and the Buccaneers were flying high at 2-2 and fresh off a 55-point performance and win over the Super Bowl runner-up Rams.

Things sure can change in a hurry.

Tampa Bay will lace up the skates for just the second time at home in 2019-20 and first since a season-opening win against the Florida Panthers. The Lightning are just one of two teams in the National Hockey League entering Saturday's slate of games having played only one home game.

The other?

Minnesota, which has gotten off to a rough start at 1-6-0.

The Lightning have had considerably more success than the Wild under the challenging circumstances, the Bolts entering tonight's matchup against Western Conference powerhouse Colorado at 4-2-1 and winners of two in a row following victories in Montreal and Boston to cap a season long-tying six-game road trip.

"We've taken some pretty positive steps," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "They've been baby steps, but they've been positive steps. I liked a lot of facets of our game. Hopefully we can take a forward step in our special teams tonight. The guys have been working hard, and they've bought in. We just have to continue that though. Consistency has been our issue. And so now it just can't be a couple on the road, we have to keep going here. The quality of our opponent is probably going to help that too because the next three at home are all against playoff caliber teams. But this will be a good test. Should be a good one."

The Lightning felt they played their best 5-on-5 game - and maybe their best game overall - in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Stanley Cup runner-up Bruins in Boston. That their best performance came at the conclusion of a long grind through the northeast is an encouraging sign.

In fact, Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said the Bolts were at their best in the last two games of the trip in Montreal, a 3-1 victory, and wrapping up in Boston.

"The last game of a road trip can be kind of a (hit or miss) game," Hedman said. "We couldn't afford that (against Boston). We had some bad games during that road trip. I'm very happy with the way we responded the last two games against Montreal and Boston, two tough buildings to play in and coming away with four points was encouraging. So, we've got to continue that path in these three home games before we go on another long road trip."

There are still areas of concern for the Lightning to be sure. In both the Montreal and Boston wins, the Bolts committed five penalties. Their penalty kill bailed them out in Montreal but was exposed in Boston, the Bruins scoring all three of their goals on the power play, including their final tally with 3:05 remaining after the Lightning had taken their first lead just 1:42 prior and were looking to close out the win in regulation.

Consistency has been an issue too, the Lightning routing Toronto 7-3 one night and then losing two days later to winless Ottawa.

"I think we got better as the trip progressed," Bolts captain Steven Stamkos said. "We're trying to iron out some things, like we've talked about the past week. Penalties still an issue. We saw how that can bite us on this trip. Got away with it last game, but I think that's probably the main focus right now. The 5-on-5 game is rounding into form in terms of how we want to play and the compete and just attention to detail has been a lot better the past couple games. We want to continue that trend."

The challenge tonight will be difficult. Colorado is the only team in the NHL without a regulation loss.

But the Lightning have typically been ready the tougher the opponent this season.

Tonight, playing for the first time in 16 days in front of their home fans should be no different.

"The trend is we've played up to our opponent so far," Stamkos said. "When we've we played some good teams, we've had some great responses, so let's have that consistently every night. We play another really good team tonight, so I expect our guys to be ready. Again, let's get our legs the first couple shifts, let's stay out of the penalty box so we're not chasing the game and go out there and have a fun game in front of our fans for what seems like forever since our last home game."

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