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Lightning season headed to crossroads

Tampa Bay faces key games at Wild, Jets with break in schedule looming

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

The question: Are the Tampa Bay Lightning's next two games, at the Minnesota Wild on Friday and at the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday, the two biggest games of their season to date?

Considering A) the Lightning have won back-to-back games for the first time since December, and B) their week off follows, a time when they can't pick up points but the teams ahead of them can.

This was the question posed to Lightning coach Jon Cooper during a phone interview Wednesday. He laughed but admitted he understood the reasoning behind the question because he, too, can see his underachieving team is last in the Eastern Conference with 28 games remaining.

Cooper, like the rest of us, knows time is running short on the Lightning's chances to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to avoid the potential label as the League's biggest disappointment this season based on preseason expectations that they would be Cup contenders.

But as much as Cooper may have wanted to answer yes because he also knows what a four-game winning streak going into their break could mean for the Lightning, he wouldn't.

Video: LAK@TBL: Coburn lifts home a rebound to extend lead

"You'd be counting points beyond points, and you can't do that," Cooper said. "It's like climbing a ladder. Minnesota is the next rung. We gotta grab that rung. Our most desperate game this year has to be against Minnesota."

Tampa Bay has fallen down the ladder and is six points out of a playoff spot because it hasn't been able to get anything to fall into place this season.

Until this week. That's why these next two games are so big.

There's still time for the Lightning. They'll have to do it without captain Steven Stamkos, whose return from right knee surgery isn't considered a possibility until at least April. But there's still time to climb up the standings and into a playoff spot before the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 28. There's time to get into position to contend for the Stanley Cup.

But fail to pick up points in Minnesota and Winnipeg, and the schedule reduces to 26 games and every Eastern Conference team except the Washington Capitals, who also have a break next week, will have a chance to pad their lead on the Lightning from Feb. 12-17.

Video: LAK@TBL: Kucherov finishes Namestnikov's great pass

So, yes, these are the two biggest games of the season.

"This is one of those years where nobody in the Atlantic Division aside of maybe [the Montreal Canadiens], because of their super-hot start, has really taken off like they have in the [Metropolitan Division]," Cooper said. "There are a couple spots that are within reach because nobody has seized them yet."

Cooper's hope that the Lightning can seize one of those spots stems from recent improvements he has seen. You can argue that Tampa Bay has been average considering it's 5-5-2 with 30 goals scored and 30 goals against since a 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 8, but a deeper dive offers a reason for optimism.

The Lightning have allowed 2.5 goals per game and are 82.9 percent on the penalty kill in their past 12 games. They allowed 3.0 goals per game and were 79.4 percent on the PK in their first 42 games.

Tampa Bay followed the loss at Pittsburgh with a 4-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 12 and a 3-1 loss (including an empty-net goal) to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Jan. 13. They followed by allowing two goals or fewer five times during a six-game road trip, but went 2-2-2.

Video: TBL@LAK: Bishop makes a pair of nice saves on Lewis

"We walked out of that trip with only six points and were legitimately scratching our heads going, 'How did we not at least have 10?'" Cooper said. "But we looked at it as we're playing pretty good, just not getting rewarded."

They've won their past two games doing the same thing, defeating the Anaheim Ducks 3-2 in a shootout and the Los Angeles Kings 5-0.

"Our hope now is we're still playing pretty good and now we're getting rewarded for it," Cooper said. "Hope is a very powerful feeling."

To the point that the Lightning can legitimately hope the hot streak that has eluded them all season has finally started. At least that's the optimistic viewpoint for a team that has won at least two games in a row only five times this season and has never won more than four in a row.

A year ago the Lightning put together a seven-game winning streak in January and a nine-game streak from Feb. 18-March 5. They also never lost more than two in a row in regulation and finished second in the Atlantic Division with 97 points.

Video: ANA@TBL: Boyle goes five-hole for eventual SO winner

If the Lightning can win in Minnesota and Winnipeg, what's to stop them from pushing all the way up to second again with a fantastic finish?

"We have a long ways to go," forward Brian Boyle said.

Back-to-back wins against the Wild and Jets would put the Lightning on pace for 85 points. But they'd have momentum in a division that is wide-open behind Montreal.

"We have to keep rolling to get to where we want," forward Jonathan Drouin said.

They still might fall short even if they do keep rolling, but a four-game winning streak going into the bye week would give them momentum, a buffer if the teams ahead of them win while they're vacationing, and a legitimate reason to believe.

That's why these are the two most important games of the Lightning's season. At least so far.

"We just have to win," Cooper said. "The rest falls into place." 

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