Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Three signs the Lightning may be primed to strike

TAMPA — The crowd at Amalie Arena roared as it rose to its feet Tuesday late in the Lightning's 5-0 win over the Kings.

Finally, the building had buzz. Finally, it had reason to.

The Lightning has won back-to-back games for the first time since Dec. 20-22. It beat two good teams in the Ducks and Kings with impressive performances. Players were engaged. They displayed swagger.

Jones: Is this the Lightning we've been waiting for?

Could this be the start of the elusive run the Lightning needs to get back into the playoff picture? Or is it just a blip?

Friday's game will reveal more when the Lightning faces one of the league's top teams, the Wild, in Minnesota.

But here are three signs from Tuesday that the win could be something more.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Los Angeles Kings goalie Peter Budaj (31) is beaten by Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) for Kucherov's first goal of the game during the second period of Tuesday's (2/7/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the LA Kings at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Bishop's back

The smile said it all.

After goalie Ben Bishop racked up his first shutout of the season Tuesday, I asked him how much it helped to get back-to-back starts. Bishop had played just twice in the previous 16 days. "That was nice," he said, smiling, "really nice."

Bishop stopped there. He didn't need to say more. Bishop is playing like he doesn't want to give up the net. It has been a tough season for him. He is on pace for career worsts in save percentage and goals-against average. He constantly has been part of trade rumors. But Bishop has been locked in the past few games, especially Tuesday, when he bailed the Lighting out with 19 first-period saves.

"Without (Bishop), I don't think we'd be able to have that confidence in ourselves and play the game we played," wing Nikita Kucherov said.

It looked like the previous two seasons, when Bishop masked the Lightning's defensive deficiencies. That safety net hasn't been there as much this season. If Bishop can get hot, so can the Lightning.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Los Angeles Kings goalie Peter Budaj (31) is beaten by Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) for Kucherov's first goal of the game during the second period of Tuesday's (2/7/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the LA Kings at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Kucherov comes to life

A team needs its best players to be its best players.

The past few games, Nikita Kucherov has resembled the dynamic All-Star he was earlier in the season. His two goals Tuesday matched his total from his previous 10 games. Both came on high-skill plays — a breakaway and two-on-one — and broke open the game in the second period.

Kucherov hadn't looked like himself in the past month; in fairness, neither had the rest of the Lightning. Maybe the lower-body injury that sidelined him in December lingered. Maybe it has been the pressure of carrying a larger load without Steven Stamkos, out since November knee surgery.

The effort was there, but Kucherov's body language just seemed off. Coach Jon Cooper said that sometimes goal scorers just need to score goals to feel better about themselves. Kucherov has to feel good after racking up four points in the past two games.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Los Angeles Kings goalie Peter Budaj (31) is beaten by Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) for Kucherov's first goal of the game during the second period of Tuesday's (2/7/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the LA Kings at Amalie Arena in Tampa.

Supporting cast

The Lightning has relied too much on Nikita Kucherov, Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson and Brian Boyle for its offense.

Vladislav Namestnikov, arguably the most improved player last season, hasn't taken the next step this year, even while getting time on the top line. But Namestnikov racked up two assists Tuesday, his first since Jan. 12.

More from Lightning beat writer Joe Smith

J.T. Brown got his first point since Dec. 22, setting up fellow fourth liner Gabriel Dumont, who scored his first NHL goal since April 2012 with Montreal. That kind of depth could be a difference maker down the stretch.

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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