Sunday, January 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning season could hinge on this six-game trip

LOS ANGELES — The time is now for the Lightning to make a run.

You can argue that it might already be too late. Tampa Bay's chance of making the playoffs drops with each passing week. It is down to 18 percent, says the blog Game Score, which used 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the season to project team point totals.

But the six-game, 13-day road trip that begins today against the Kings could be a make-or-break moment for the preseason Stanley Cup favorites.

"These games will have a huge impact on our season," associate coach Rick Bowness said, "so we've got to make sure we come out of this with our heads above water."

Gone is any margin for error. There's no room for moral victories, like playing better, as it did Thursday and Friday against the Sabres and Blue Jackets, and got two of four possible points in a two-game homestand.

"The results are all that matters," center Brian Boyle said. "We need to change our attitude a little bit, kind of find our mojo, carry ourselves with a little bit more confidence. We can score quick goals. We can come from behind, jump out to leads and bury teams. We've done that in the past with this group."

The Lightning found its mojo around this time last season, winning 20 of 25 games from Jan. 8 to March 5. That was just enough to make the playoffs, Tampa Bay clinching its spot in Game No. 80. Does this team have that type of run in it? It's hard to envision, especially with the Lightning having won back-to-back games just twice in the past two months.

Its longest streak is four wins, from Nov. 14-19. And it is just 2-8-1 against Western Conference teams, which it faces in five of the next six games. It is 2-7-2 in its past 11 road games.

The Lightning is fortunate the Flyers haven't pulled away for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia's recent slide — 1-3-1 in its past five — has allowed the Lightning to stay within six points (while holding two games in hand). Toronto, winner of eight of its past 10, holds a four-point lead over Tampa Bay for the third spot in the Atlantic Division, with three games in hand.

The odds are the Flyers will get out of their funk eventually, but there are still three teams between them and the Lightning (Carolina, Florida and Ottawa). And they're not all going to lose at the same time. This is why the Lightning needs to make up ground now.

That won't be easy against the Kings, who are barely holding on to the second wild-card spot in the West, and Pacific Division-leading Anaheim on Tuesday. On Thursday is defending West champion San Jose. Then come Arizona, Chicago and Florida.

Conventional wisdom is that getting at least half of the available points on a road trip is pretty good, which would mean six of 12 on this trip. But Tampa Bay needs more. It won't have wing Ryan Callahan (hip), who the Lightning announced Sunday will be out four weeks. Wing J.T. Brown (upper body), who practiced Sunday in a red noncontact jersey, could return soon, with Joel Vermin called up from AHL Syracuse on Sunday as insurance.

It's just six games, but this stretch could go a long way in determining what's left of a once-promising season.

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