ST. PETERSBURG — When you’re top dog, everybody nips at you.
So it is with hockey’s best team. Tampa Bay’s finest just returned from a quick jaunt northeast, where it couldn’t quite catch up to the Penguins, won in a shootout over the surprising Islanders — one of the most rousing 1-0 games you’ll ever see — then held off the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
It’s just what the Lightning need.
The top dogs are getting everyone’s best, no matter where they go or who they play, and that won’t change Tuesday when Vegas, last year’s darling expansion Cup finalist and now a contender again, visits Amalie Arena.
Jon Cooper’s team could use it.
At 39-11-2, miles ahead of everyone else in the Eastern Conference, the Lightning need to stay healthy above all else. But it needs to be tested. By the looks of that last trip, that won’t be a problem.
“It’s a very good thing,” Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said. “You want everybody’s best, because it makes you play your best. We’re not worried about how many points we have, we’re fine tuning for the playoffs. That’s our focus. We’ve got to make sure we’re playing our best hockey when we hit the playoffs.”
These games help, games like the one on Long Island on Friday night, games that feel like playoff games, which will be here soon enough.
And being the team everyone wants to beat can help.
“You might end up losing a few more games, but in the long run those games, win or lose, might prepare you for your end goal,” Lightning winger Alex Killorn said.
Lightning TV color analyst Brian Engblom played for the dynastic Montreal Canadiens of the late ‘70s. They were the biggest show in any town they played.
Lighting players "have developed a reputation, but it’s at its peak right now because they’ve been in first place so long,” Engblom said. “But to maintain that high level, you need help. And teams they play are bringing it.”
There is an inner confidence to this team, enough for it to think it can weather whatever comes. There was a recent TSN report that the Lightning is showing interest before the Feb. 25 trade deadline in acquiring a big body up front, like Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers.
I mean, is the Lightning really ready to stand pat at the Feb. 25 trade deadline?
History would suggest that it should leave nothing to chance. When the Lightning won the Cup in 2004, Tampa Bay traded for defensemen Darryl Sydor during the season. And as deep and as fast as the Lightning forwards are, more muscle might matter come the playoffs, We saw it last spring, as the Capitals startled the Lightning by pushing it around at times, wearing down Tampa Bay over seven games.
Then again, who would the Lightning sit or move for Simmonds? Adam Erne? Defenseman Erik Cernak? Also, the Lightning already went all in, last season, when it picked up Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller. McDonagh is a Norris Trophy dark horse this season.
And the Lightning can point to last season, when the eventual Cup champion Capitals made few moves outside of picking up defenseman Michal Kempný. Tampa Bay believes in its core group, and that its past experiences, those recent playoff runs, will add up to something come April. No moves might just pass muster with Lightning veterans.
“There would be zero disappointment and I think I could speak for the whole room,” Callahan said. “We’ve got a special group here for quite a while.”
“I think we’re not only confident in the team we put out there, but in the two or three guys who sit out,” Killorn said.
I would still make a move. Why leave anything to chance? I can still remember Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn fighting Washington tough Tom Wilson in the conference finals. Admirable, but indicative of what the Lightning was up against. You don’t want these talented but undersized Lightning forwards overpowered. You don’t want them worn down.
Without making a move, the best thing that could happen to the Lightning is a lot of tight games, playoff like. Tampa Bay just had a few on that road trip, and there will be more before the season ends, including three games with Boston and two trips to Toronto. Teams will be gunning for Cooper and his team.
It might be the best thing for them.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.