TAMPA — Judging by how crisp the Lightning's practice looked Tuesday, it seemed the five-day All-Star break did this team a lot of good.
"We were joking on the ice after the first two drills — it looked so good, that we almost wanted to end practice right there," coach Jon Cooper said. "You could tell — fresh legs, fresh mind."
Cooper saw a rejuvenated team with jump, and expects that to carry over tonight at Amalie Arena in what he labels a tone-setting game against the Red Wings, who are tied with the Lightning (27-18-4) and Boston for second in the Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay has won nine of 11 but it is just one point ahead of New Jersey, which is out of the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, making the final 33 games a fight to the finish. The East's second- to sixth-place teams are separated by just six points.
"There's no time to take a breath," veteran wing Ryan Callahan said. "This is when games start to get tighter and a lot tougher, when you're trying to clinch a playoff spot. We've got to be ready for it, and we believe we will."
Said goalie Ben Bishop: "There's no ease-in process — it'll be full tilt right away."
Hosting the Red Wings immediately out of the All-Star break — in an NBCSN matchup to boot — should get Tampa Bay's attention. The Red Wings have beaten the Lightning twice this season, both in Detroit, 3-1 on Oct. 13 and 2-1 on Nov. 3. They are two very similar teams familiar with each other, Tampa Bay having outlasted Detroit in seven games in a first-round playoff series in April.
"We have a little bit of a budding rivalry with these guys," Cooper said. "They're a good team, they're a little bit of a measuring stick because they've been in the playoffs for 24 straight years.
"We've both gone through some ups and downs, both teams have had injuries. Everybody is primarily healthy now, let's just see where we're at."
There are several reasons for the Lightning's recent run, from being completely healthy to stabilizing its lines, not to mention a more consistent work ethic. Tampa Bay has also boosted its scoring, averaging 3.55 goals in its past nine games. And perhaps more important it has played with the lead, scoring first in seven of those nine games. In those eight wins, the Lightning trailed for a combined 8:04.
"One of the big issues we had, especially in the first third of the season, we weren't scoring first — ever," Cooper said. "So we continually had to chase the game and in a big part of that we were losing those 1-0, 2-1 games all the time. It takes enough energy to come back and tie the game, let alone go ahead and hold the lead in those games."
The Lightning isn't worried about carrying momentum. Captain Steven Stamkos noted that they're not happy with their last win before the break, 1-0 over Toronto on Thursday largely credited to goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's 30-save masterpiece.
Tampa Bay hasn't been dominant in this stretch, though it might have played its two best games of the season Jan. 12 in Colorado and Jan. 21 against Chicago.
The Lightning has found ways to win, and it will need to continue to play catchup after an average first half of the season.
"I don't think anybody ever thinks about how important the start is," Cooper said. "Because you don't have to chase the game and if things go south a little bit, you still have the ability to rebound and come back. But if you don't have a good start, you're chasing it, you're playoffs start at Christmas and that's a mental grind on you.
"…We can't really change the way we've been playing. We've won nine of 11 but that hasn't pulled us away from anybody. That's just put us back into the playoff hunt. Now we're in the conversation, so what are you going to do to stay there? That's what this is going to be about."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.