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Tom Jones: Lightning face big homestand

Under normal circumstances, the first couple of weeks of the regular season would not be that big of a deal for the Lightning. It has played only three games, hardly enough to start circling games on the calendar as must-win or even important. Again, under normal circumstances.

These are not normal circumstances.

The lockout that put the NHL season on pause has put it on fast forward. Don't think of it as three games into a long season. This isn't early October. This isn't the first few warmup steps into a marathon.

It's already late January. Or, here's a better, more accurate way to think of it: The Lightning is down to 45 games left, and it is one of 15 teams crammed together in the standings. The sprint to the playoffs begins now.

And make no mistake, the next five games, all at home, are a very big deal.

Here's why they matter so much and how the Lightning has looked so far, albeit only three games into this shortened season.

Quick start is critical

Barry Melrose, a former Lightning coach, was coaching the Kings during the last 48-game season, in 1995. The Kings were two seasons removed from the Stanley Cup final and still had superstars Wayne Gretzky, Rick Tocchet and Jari Kurri.

They started the season 3-4-1, fell behind the playoff pack and never caught up. The Kings finished a point out of the playoffs, and Melrose lost his job.

"You've got to get out of the gate hot,'' Melrose said. "You can't lose games out of the gate or you'll never make them up. You've just got to be so good right away. The teams that do that are the ones that are going to make the playoffs.''

How true. The Red Wings started that season 6-2 and ended up in the Cup final. The then-Quebec Nordiques started 7-1 and finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Meantime, the defending champ Rangers started 2-5-1, scrambled to sneak into the final playoff spot in the East and ended up getting swept in the second round of the playoffs. The Lightning went 3-4-1 through eight games and never threatened the rest of the way.

The guess here is it will take about 54 points to get into the playoffs. That means a record that is something like 25-19-4. There are going to be losing streaks, slumps and rough patches.

But there also must be hot streaks, and better to get ahead now than fall behind and play follow the leaders the rest of the way. A good eight-game start would be, say, 5-2-1. The Lightning is on its way with a 2-1 record.

Make-hay time now

What makes this upcoming five-game stretch so much more important than any other five-game stretch? All five are at home, the longest homestand of the season.

What's more, the schedule is fairly navigable, with games against the Senators, Flyers, Panthers, Jets and Rangers. Of that lot, only the Jets missed the playoffs last season, but none of those teams is off to a particularly hot start. The best teams on that list — the Rangers and Flyers — went into Wednesday night with a combined record of 0-5. What better time to have those teams on your schedule?

Even last season, when it missed the playoffs, the Lightning was still a formidable team at home, with 25-14-2 record (as opposed to 13-22-6 on the road). You certainly don't want to dig a hole during the longest homestand of the season.

What we've seen

Yes, it has been only three games, but there is plenty of reason for optimism.

Veterans Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier look 10 years younger. Rookie Cory Conacher looks like the real deal, sharing the team lead with five points. Steven Stamkos looks like, well, Steven Stamkos, meaning he remains one of the most dangerous scorers in the NHL.

Already 15 players have found their way onto the score sheet, including nine different goal scorers. Not relying on two or three scorers means being able to survive individual scoring slumps.

So that's the good news.

The not-so-good news is the defense hasn't filled in all the cracks. The Lightning has allowed an average of nearly 37 shots per game, fourth-most in the NHL heading into Wednesday night. That number has to come way down.

That leaky defense hasn't done the goaltending of Anders Lindback and Mathieu Garon any favors, especially Lindback, who was left to fend for himself far too often in the team's loss on Long Island on Monday.

Garon made some big saves in Tuesday's victory at Carolina, but he benefitted from the Hurricanes missing a few open nets, too.

Still, the Lightning likes its 2-1 start. It will like a 6-2 or a 5-2-1 start even better. Anything less just might be a disappointment.

Under any circumstances.

Tom Jones: Lightning face big homestand 01/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 10:33pm]
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