BRANDON — Keep it going.
It’s a simple mantra in theory, but one the Lightning realizes will take greater effort as it moves into the second half of the season. Tampa Bay sits atop the NHL point standings, but players and coaches said after Tuesday’s practice that the focus has to be extending their quality play — starting with Wednesday night’s game against Pittsburgh
“That’s obviously a team that’s been very good for a long time,” Lightning winger Adam Erne said. “We have to be ready for them coming off our break and get a good start to the second half.”
Pittsburgh and New York City are next on the schedule for the Lightning as they take on the Penguins on Wednesday, the Islanders on Friday and conclude with the Rangers on Saturday.
The last time Tampa Bay faced off against Pittsburgh, it came away with a 4-3 win on the road at PPG Paints Arena.
It was a great night for center Braydon Point, who scored the sixth-fastest hat trick in NHL history with three goals in just 91 seconds.
However, Tampa Bay’s goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was out with an indefinite injury he sustained in a practice just before the matchup, and Pittsburgh’s C Sidney Crosby missed out on the action with an upper-body injury.
Now the Penguins, currently fourth in the Metropolitan Division, will pose a different kind of threat after coming off its break and losing a 6-3 game against New Jersey on Monday.
“We’re not looking past Pittsburgh,” defenseman Dan Girardi said Tuesday. “This is a good three coming up after a long break.”
Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said you never really quite know what to expect from teams coming out of a bye week and All-Star weekend break. For Pittsburgh, he said, it was a contest not up to its usual standards.
“It’s always unknown,” Lalonde said. “You watched the games last night, games coming off a break like that, it’s very unpredictable.”
The Islanders and Rangers will also pose a challenge to the Lightning coming into this weekend. The Islanders beat Tampa Bay 5-1 on Jan. 13, with Lightning dropping three goals in the first period.
“Obviously, the Islanders had our number last time,” Girardi said. “If you’re not up for a game and ready for who you’re playing, it doesn’t matter who you’ve got in front of you.”
Under new coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders play a stifling style similar to the approach Trotz used last season as Washington’s head coach. The Capitals eliminated Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
“Obviously, knowing their coach from last year – it was a hard-fought series against them (the Capitals) -- so it’s a very structured team, a very disciplined team. When you make mistakes, they make you pay. That’s pretty much the case with any team, but in the last game, we weren’t ready to play … they’re always ready to play, they always have a good start."
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Girardi, however, isn’t focused on the teams up ahead as much as he’s focused on the team right in front of him, the team that could end up bringing home a hefty piece of silverware in about four months’ time.
“We definitely have to start off the season creating some separation between us and the teams below us,” Girardi said.
Contact Mari Faiello at email@example.com. Follow @faiello_mari.