The Tampa Bay Lightning are coming up on the conclusion of maybe their most difficult stretch of the 2019-20 regular season schedule with 13 games in 21 days between the Christmas break and the bye week/All-Star Game break.
The Lightning have one week to go before getting a much-needed extended rest with nine days off between games. They'll play their third and final home game of January tonight when they host the Pacific Division's Los Angeles Kings at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop). The Lightning are a perfect 4-0-0 against the Pacific this season and have won seven in a row over the division dating back to last season.
Getting a win on home ice tonight along with similar positive results in a back-to-back later this week at Minnesota and Winnipeg will be important as far as maintaining the momentum from their recently-ended 10-game win streak as well as going into the break with positive vibes.
Video: Preview | Lightning vs Kings
"They're huge," Tampa Bay center Mitchell Stephens said. "It's huge for momentum for the team, for confidence for the guys in the room. You want to win every game, create momentum as the season goes on. These three are huge for us right before the break. Hopefully we'll get three wins. We're focusing on tonight against L.A., and we'll look to play a full 60-minute game."
The Lightning saw their franchise record-tying 10-game win streak come to an end Sunday night in New Jersey following a 3-1 loss to the Devils and former netminder Louis Domingue. Now, it's imperative the Lightning have a strong bounce-back effort against Los Angeles and not let the New Jersey loss linger into this week's slate of games.
"We just have to pay attention to what we did during that streak and just continue it," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "Just because the winning streak's over, it's not sigh and let's just get to the break because we put ourselves back into contention here. So that's why these are important. We've talked about the importance of home games. We don't have that many in this stretch. We just want to close out the way we've been playing and feel good about ourselves heading into the break."
The Lightning should be feeling pretty good about where they are in the standings currently. Tampa Bay is solidly in second place in the Atlantic Division, trailing the division-leading Boston Bruins by eight points but with two games in hand while owning a four-point lead over third-place Toronto with a game in hand heading into tonight's schedule of games.
The Bolts have the fifth-most points in the NHL currently (58) and own the sixth-best points percentage (.644) in the League, an amazing achievement considering they were tied for 21st in the NHL for points on December 23 right before they went on their extended winning run.
"If we can go 10-1 in every 11-game stretch, we'll take that," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "At some point, you're going to lose a hockey game or two. I said this after the (New Jersey) game, we pulled ourselves back into the race and now we have our own destiny in our hands now. We've just got to continue to munch points. Being at home, especially we probably struggled a little early in the year, we've kind of found our stride here, but these games, you have to take advantage of them. We're playing a Western team which we don't see each other that (often), matchups are different, it's a different style of game. The big thing is try and get the lead and jump on these teams early and try and close them out. But most definitely looking forward to being back in front of our fans again."
Video: Cooper on match-up with Kings
It's been a complete team effort that's allowed the Lightning to string together wins. They're scoring goals at their typical frenetic pace. They're not giving up many goals either, their 2.89 goals-against average ranking tied for ninth in the NHL. The power play, which has come up empty the last three games, still ranks third in the League at 27.8 percent, and the penalty kill, once a major cause for concern, is tied for third in the League at a kill rate of 83.5 percent.
Goaltending has been spectacular too with Andrei Vasilevskiy winning eight-straight games. He was rewarded Monday with his third-straight All-Star Game selection, replacing Boston's Tuukka Rask, and the NHL's First Star of the week. Backup goalie Curtis McElhinney has been solid as well giving up just eight combined goals over his last four starts.
"We've talked about it all year, we're not completely changing our identity as a team but just tweaking some things, and we've done a much better job of that, especially the last two months," Stamkos said. "You could feel that build up. You could feel that stretch of consecutive wins was going to come because we're playing the right way."