Lightning coach Guy Boucher said his team's motto before Christmas was simple:
"Survive," he said.
Boucher knew Tampa Bay faced a considerable challenge in the season's first half. It had 24 of its first 40 games on the road, where his injury-depleted team can get exposed by not having the last line change. When play stops and both teams make line changes, the home team can wait to see what players the opponent sends out before creating a more favorable matchup for it.
"That's where home ice advantage is," Boucher said. "It's not about the stands, not about the types of ice you're going to encounter, or the boards. It's really about the last change."
Whether the Lightning (17-20-3) has survived is up for debate. It is in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of the final postseason spot. But with Tampa Bay returning home to play nine of its next 12 games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, where it is 11-5 this season, it has an opportunity to make up ground, starting Tuesday against the Canucks.
"We've got to get back (home) and get the wins back," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "That's all we can do."
Tampa Bay is also much better with the man advantage at home — 12-of-55, 21.8 percent — than on the road, where it is a league-worst 7-of-83 for 8.4 percent, including 1-for-34 in its past 10 road games.
Center Steven Stamkos knows his team needs to get on a big winning streak. The Lightning hasn't won four in a row all season. It lost all three games in last week's road trip after taking three straight at home.
"Our backs are against the wall," Stamkos said. "There's so many teams ahead of us right now that we need to put a streak together.
"This is where teams start to separate themselves from a playoff team to not a playoff team. These are the games that you need to win. If you don't win these games, there's no race, there's nothing to play for at the end of the year. You're already out of it."
Considering the Lightning reached the East final last season — and took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins to seven games — this is not the spot its fans likely envisioned for it at this point. Players acknowledge it's partly their doing by not performing to expectations.
"I think this year, we probably felt a little entitled with the success," Marty St. Louis said. "We forgot the process, 'Earn it every day.' We just remember the end result last year and forget how you get there.
"There were some tough times throughout (last) season, and we bounced back, and we battled, and we fought through it. I think the expectation rises as you go within one game of the Stanley Cup (final), collectively and individually. And last year we had no expectations.
"We've just got to hang in there, and obviously our schedule gets easier for us a little in the second half."
Home, sweet home
The Lightning has fared much better at home this season than on the road. Nine of its next 12 games are at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
6-15-3 Record 11-5
2.125 Avg. goals per game 3.5
3.70 Avg. goals allowed 2.81
8.4 Power play pct. 21.8
81.9Penalty kill pct. 76.1