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Three reasons a Lightning run could be coming

Nikita Kucherov's two goals Tuesday matched his total from his previous 10 games combined.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Nikita Kucherov's two goals Tuesday matched his total from his previous 10 games combined.

8

February

The crowd at Amalie Arena roared as it rose to its feet Tuesday night during the final seconds of the Lightning's 5-0 win over the Kings.

Finally, the building had some buzz. Finally, it had reason to.

The Lightning has won back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 20-22. It beat two good teams in the Ducks and Kings with impressive performances. Players were engaged. They displayed some swagger. Could this be the start of the elusive run the Lightning needs to get back into the playoff picture? Or is it just a blip? Friday's game will reveal more with the Lightning facing one of the league's top teams, the Wild, in Minnesota.

But here are three signs from Tuesday this could be something more.

Bishop's back
The smile said it all.

After goalie Ben Bishop racked up his first shutout of the season Tuesday, I asked him how much it helped to get back-to-back starts. Bishop had played just twice in the previous 16 days. "That was nice," he said with a smile. "really nice."

Bishop stopped there. He didn't need to say more. Bishop is playing like he doesn't want to give the net up. The two-time Vezina Trophy finalist has had a tough season. He's on on pace for career worsts in save percentage and goals against average. He has been constantly part of trade rumors, with uncertainty where he's going to play after the Mar 1 trade deadline, much less next season. But Bishop has been locked in the past few games, especially Tuesday, when he bailed the Lighting out with 19 first period saves.

"Without (Bishop), I don't think we'd be able to have that confidence in ourselves and play the game we played," wing Nikita Kucherov said.

It looked like the previous two years, when Bishop would mask the team's defensive deficiencies. That safety net hasn't been there as much this season. But if Bishop can get hot, so can the Lightning.

Kucherov comes to life

You need your best players to be your best players.

And the past couple games, Kucherov has resembled the dynamic All-Star he was earlier in the season. His two goals Tuesday matched his total from his previous 10 games combined. Both were high skill plays - a breakaway, and two-on-one - breaking the game open in the second period.

It was encouraging considering Kucherov hadn't looked like himself in the past month; in fairness, neither did the rest of the team. Maybe the lower body injury that sidelined him from Dec. 11-Dec. 28 lingered. Maybe Kucherov, carrying a larger load without Steven Stamkos, was putting too much pressure on himself. Either way, Kucherov wasn't as noticeable in some games. The effort was there, but his body language just seemed off.

Coach Jon Cooper said sometimes goal scorers just need to score goals to feel better about themselves. And Kucherov has to feel good after racking up four points in the past two games.

Supporting cast

The Lightning has relied too much on the likes of Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Brian Boyle for its offense. Vladislav Namestnikov, arguably the most improved player last season, hasn't taken the next step this year, even while getting time on the top line.

But Namestnikov racked up two assists Tuesday, his first since Jan. 12, in one of his better games. J.T. Brown got his first point since Dec. 22, setting up fellow fourth liner Gabriel Dumont, who scored his first NHL goal since April 2012 with Montreal. That kind of depth could be a difference-maker down the stretch.

[Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 5:38pm]

    

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