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Coaches Room

Lightning face challenges trying for better outcome in playoffs

Carlyle says 20-2-1 run puts Tampa Bay in good place, but questions remain

by Randy Carlyle / Special to NHL.com

The Coaches Room is a regular feature throughout the 2019-20 season by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. David Marcoux, Rob Zettler, Rob Cookson and Randy Carlyle will take turns providing insight. 

In this edition, Carlyle, winner of the Norris Trophy voted as the best defenseman in the NHL during the 1980-81 season and former coach of the Anaheim Ducks and Toronto Maple Leafs, discusses the resurgence of the Tampa Bay Lightning and what might be ahead for last season's Presidents' Trophy winners.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning got off to a less-than-spectacular start this season, I wrote in November about the challenges they were facing after being swept out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference First Round by the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.

There were some good signs starting to show then and Tampa Bay's pedigree, one that helped them win the Presidents' Trophy with 128 points last season, led me to believe they would eventually get things turned in the right direction. Still, the Lightning had trouble maintaining any momentum and were 12-9-3 through the end of November, a month that included two wins in the Global Series against the Buffalo Sabres in Stockholm.

It's time to revisit their story.

After an eighth straight win, a 2-1 overtime victory at the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday, the Lightning are 20-2-1 in their past 23 games going back to Dec. 23, a remarkable run. They play the Edmonton Oilers at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SUN, SNW, NHL.TV).

Video: TBL@CBJ: Kucherov wins it in overtime for Lightning

Many things must go right to have such a surge.

It starts with the Lightning's strong goaltending. Their No. 1 goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, has found his form again and has not lost in regulation since Dec. 14, going 17-0-2 in that time, a franchise record. He was sharp again Tuesday, with 35 saves against the Penguins.

And they've been getting strong work from their backup Curtis McElhinney, who is 4-2-0 during this run. McElhinney is a well-regarded teammate that really solidifies their group and has given Tampa Bay quality starts this season, including 31 saves in a 2-1 overtime win at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday.

Forward Nikita Kucherov, as you might expect, is once again leading the offense. He's got a 12-game point streak, with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in that time, though he did leave the game against the Penguins in the second period.

The climb back near the top of the Atlantic Division standings, putting pressure on the division- and League-leading Boston Bruins, has come all the way from sixth place in the division and out of a playoff spot on Dec. 22 to one point out of first place.

Video: NYI@TBL: Point fires slap shot on a rush in the 2nd

But it's what's ahead that is most intriguing.

It's unrealistic to expect the Lightning to finish on the same pace as they've played in the past month or six weeks. But I can guarantee they want to keep pushing themselves and there's not a coach on Earth right now that would go in his room and say, 'It's not important for us to win tonight.' It never happens.

So, they've taken the step that most thought was possible. They've lived through the adversities of the early part of the season. They've had a tremendous amount of success over the last six weeks, now can they or will they be able to learn from the trap of last season, where their regular-season success didn't lead to anything positive in the playoffs?

I'm sure coach Jon Cooper is concerned about what's ahead and trying to take every step and every measure at his disposal to keep things afloat, to sustain what they're doing and at the same time not put too much pressure on them. He'll hope the group responds.

The other major issue will be an off-ice one, that as we draw closer to the playoffs day by day, there will be no shortage of reminders and questions about what happened last year.

I don't think they can hide from what happened. The most important thing is that they don't let it become a distraction. It's there. It happened. How will they protect themselves against it? What will they do differently? To me, it will be more a challenge for the players to take responsibility for it and do something about it.

They have good players. They know what they're doing. They'll be prepared. The coaches will just have to make sure they're giving their players the right information, always cognizant of what happened to them in the 2019 playoffs. Their attitude will be, I guarantee, to keep doing what they're doing, recognize what happened last year and let's protect ourselves mentally and stay physically engaged in the games to the same level they've always shown.

Video: PIT@TBL: Point, Stamkos connect for pretty goal

The weeks ahead will be good preparation weeks for when they have to live it in April and beyond. The questions that have to be answered are coming and nobody is suggesting it will be easy and nobody is suggesting they'll be able to create a different result in one or two days. It's a long haul, getting to the end of the regular season and getting through the playoffs. Will and focus are going to be required in the time ahead, no matter their surge in the past six weeks.

I would also say that I doubt they'll be putting standings pressure on themselves in any way now. The recent strong move they've made takes care of most of the worry about qualifying for the postseason.

Now they'll just be focused on giving it their best night in and night out and just let the chips fall where they may. Let other teams worry about it and just go out and take care of their own business.

That's the road that leads to a potentially different outcome, a positive outcome for the Lightning this season.

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