OTTAWA — One reason Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman felt comfortable standing pat at Monday's trade deadline was the encouraging play of his team, especially in its own end.
"Our defense seems to be settling down," he said.
After an alarming stretch of allowing four goals or more in four of six games, Tampa Bay has tightened up considerably to spark its seven-game winning streak. In the past six games, the Lightning has given up a combined seven goals, two coming shorthanded and one with an extra attacker.
"Just good goaltending," goalie Ben Bishop said, laughing.
Joking aside, goaltending has been a big part of it, with stellar performances by Bishop and backup Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was a difference-maker with 32 saves in Monday's 2-1 win over Toronto.
But it has been a collective effort, and mind-set, along with a 17-for-17 penalty kill in that six-game stretch that has Tampa Bay second in the Atlantic Division (after Florida won Tuesday), and ranked sixth in the league in goals against (2.35). With a win Thursday at Ottawa, the Lightning would tie a franchise record for longest winning streak, last done in its 2004 Stanley Cup season.
"It shows you when we're worrying about our side of the puck that we're a tough team to beat," wing Ryan Callahan said. "It seems like we're playing our best hockey when we do that."
The Lightning had used that recipe in its hot streak to start the calendar year, allowing two goals or fewer seven times in a 10-1 run that got it back in the playoff picture. Then Tampa Bay lost its way and structure, becoming too loose in its own end and allowing several odd-man rushes, including three breakaways in one game.
The turning point was Feb. 18 in a 6-5 shootout win over Winnipeg, which started the current win streak but came after a squandered three-goal lead in the third period. Since then, Tampa Bay has held opponents to two goals or fewer in each game, one or zero in the past four. Getting defenseman Jason Garrison back Monday after missing 10 games with a lower-body injury should help even more.
"The guys have been doing really well," said Bishop, who leads the league with a 2.06 goals-against average. "We've been talking about going through a stretch where we were giving up too many chances. The last few games, we've really dialed that down and are trying to take pride in that. I can tell in the last few games, there aren't as many two-on-ones and breakaways. We've been talking about it the last couple weeks, so its kind of come full circle, and we've got to keep up with it."
A good defense is a strong offense, and the Lightning has been rolling out four good lines, led by the top line of captain Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan. Tampa Bay has scored the first goal in four of the past six, forcing teams to chase.
"I think it's just consistently playing for 60 minutes," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "When we play the right way, we have the skill up front to score goals. And if everyone is sacrificing themselves and playing well defensively, good things are going to happen for us."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.