TAMPA — What does it take to win one-goal games in the NHL?
There were plenty of theories around the Lightning locker room from the practical — making good decisions with the puck at the right times — to the lyrical.
"It's character," coach Guy Boucher said, "the heart level."
Whatever it is, Tampa Bay is the league's best team in one-goal games. That perhaps more than anything else has fueled an improbable stretch that has it in the thick of the playoff race.
The Lightning has a league-best 21 one-goal victories. Its .700 winning percentage in one-goal games (21-3-6) also is best.
Its past eight wins are by one goal, part of a 14-5-2 streak since Jan. 17 that brought the team back from the dead and includes 11 one-goal wins.
"I know this is outstanding," Boucher said. "It's amazing how the players reacted. It's amazing the results we got, but we're far from where we want to be."
Not nearly as far as they were.
Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points out of the eighth and final playoff spot after Winnipeg's win Monday.
On Jan. 17, before it beat the Stanley Cup champion Bruins to end a seven-game losing streak, it was last in the East, 12 points behind. As late as Feb. 16, it was 13th and 10 points back.
"The way we stick together as a group is unbelievable," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "It's hard to put into words how much work it takes and how much pride we take."
Hedman, out four games with an upper-body injury, might play tonight against the Senators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a major addition to a blue line that with trades for Mike Commodore, Keith Aulie and Brian Lee has been transformed and playing as well as it has all season.
Beyond that superlatives are hard to find.
Goalie Mathieu Garon is 12-3-2 since Jan. 17, though his 2.60 goals-against average and .903 save percentage are just okay.
The power play is 11-for-64 (17.2 percent), also just okay, and the team, with 63 goals, has scored as many as it has allowed.
Even problematic is a lack of secondary scoring as the line of center Steven Stamkos (seven), Teddy Purcell (five) and Marty St. Louis (four) has 16 of Tampa Bay's 21 goals in seven games without injured captain Vinny Lecavalier.
But that one-goal thing has been pure gold.
"We're playing tough against teams," wing Tom Pyatt said. "We're in their face for 60 minutes. That's what was missing at the beginning of the season."
The Lightning, with four straight wins and five straight at home, also is thinking during the game.
"Some of us have been a part of a lot of playoff games," St. Louis said. "Our young guys got some experience last year in tight games, and we're able to manage our thought process through those games."
Said Purcell: "You're playing the score but you play the time of the game. Whether it's chipping it in, not giving the other team momentum, being above the puck in our structure, when we do that it's hard for the other team to get goals against you."
And that is how you win one-goal games.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]