TAMPA — The Lightning came into the 2015-16 season as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, before the season started, I picked the Lightning to win it all.
But at the same time, I also made this prediction: We would get to January and the major storyline would be whether the Lightning would even make the playoffs.
Well, here we are, midway through January, and the Lightning is no sure bet to make the postseason. That's just how hockey works.
Patching together consecutive great regular seasons is always tough. Everything that went right one season has a tendency to go wrong the next. A surprising lack of scoring, a rash of injuries and every opponent's A game have conspired to put the Lightning in a somewhat shaky spot with just less than half a season left.
But finally, for the first time this season, you're starting to get the feeling the Lightning is going to be okay.
That's what a winning streak can do for you. The Lightning won its sixth in a row Tuesday night, 6-4 over the Oilers — a streak that not only has pushed it into the playoff pack but has it within striking distance of first place in the Atlantic Division.
What has changed?
The easy answer is the Lightning is finally healthy, with, in particular, stars Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson back in the lineup and playing like the key players they are. Toss in some contributions from young players such as Vladislav Namestnikov, a hot flash from Nikita Kucherov and continued superstar contributions from Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop and you've got yourself a team that is starting to resemble a Cup contender.
But there's more to it than that. The Lightning seems a little more focused, more committed.
"A combination of looking yourself in the mirror as a player and, obviously, going over some (video) clips and going over (things) with the coaching staff," Stamkos said. "Our work ethic wasn't there. And when our team is not competing, you're just an average team."
The thing is, it took the Lightning more than three months to realize it wasn't competing as hard as it thought it was. Or needed to.
It's true: You are what your record says you are, and for a good chunk of this season, the Lightning had an average record.
"I think it's a good lesson," center Brian Boyle said. "You can even play well and you're not getting the result. That should make you want to play harder, execute better. Just goes to show you that the difference between winning and losing isn't that great sometimes."
Sometimes you can't help how the other team plays or how the other goalie stands on his head or how your team has untimely injuries (as if there are any other kind). But you can control one thing.
"The battle (level) has to be there no matter what," said Boyle, who scored the winner shorthanded against Edmonton. "You can talk all you want about execution, but that battle, that effort has to be there every night."
And that's what we're starting to see from the Lightning this month. There was a third-period comeback on the road at Edmonton. There have been thrilling overtime victories against Vancouver and Pittsburgh. There was the solid victory against Colorado and the tight duel against Florida.
Those games showed different ways to battle but had a common thread: victories. That added up to a winning streak that has done more than move the Lightning up in the standings. It has added pep to the Lightning's step.
"There's no question there's momentum in a streak," coach Jon Cooper said.
Cooper knows a thing or two about streaks. He once had a minor-league team win 28 in a row. This Lightning team isn't going to win 28 in a row, but the vibe of even a short streak can have the same effect.
"I'm telling you," Cooper said, "you feel like you walk in every single night and it's 1-0 for you. That's how streaks build."
The Lightning's physical state in the standings is healthier, as is its mental state.
"There's definitely a sense of, not entitlement, but realizing we are a good team if we can continue to play the way we are," Stamkos said. "More chances than not we're going to find a way to win."
The Lightning's problems are certainly not over. Even during the streak, the Lightning has had hiccups. It blew a lead against the Penguins. Nearly coughed up a two-goal lead to the Panthers. It was kind of sloppy Tuesday night against Edmonton, blowing a two-goal lead in the third before winning.
"But you don't put together streaks by accident," Boyle said. "They happen for a reason."
This one happened because the Lightning has combined desire with skill and determination with confidence. It just can't ease up yet. Sure, it is closing in on the top spot in the division, but it also isn't that far from being out of the playoffs, either.
"We can't assume we're going to make the playoffs," Boyle said. "Maybe in the beginning of the year, that's what we did. It took a little while. Now we're starting to get our legs underneath us."
Just in time, too: The defending champion Blackhawks come to town Thursday night.