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Are the Lightning better than when they left for Sweden?

Tampa Bay’s schedule returns to a more normal pace tonight when it takes on the young, gritty Rangers.
The Lightning's Victor Hedman (77). Alex Killorn (17) and Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate after an NHL hockey game against the Sabres in Globen Arena, Stockholm last week. [ANDERS WIKLUND/TT  |  AP]
The Lightning's Victor Hedman (77). Alex Killorn (17) and Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate after an NHL hockey game against the Sabres in Globen Arena, Stockholm last week. [ANDERS WIKLUND/TT | AP]
Published Nov. 14

TAMPA — Not only did the Lightning return home from Sweden with two wins, but also some serious feel-good vibes that the trip galvanized the team both on the ice and off it.

After a sluggish start to the season, Tampa Bay played two of its best all-around games on consecutive nights in Stockholm. They received contributions across all four scoring lines, and saw improved special teams play in the pair of convincing wins over the Buffalo Sabres. Away from the ice, the team forged valuable bonding time.

“You spend a lot of time with your teammates and you build that chemistry off the ice,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “And it only helps you come gametime to work that much harder for your linemates and your teammates and makes you want to push through all those aches and pains and go that extra mile to get the win that night. I think all in all it was a growing week there for sure.”

MORE LIGHTNING: Sweden trip just what the doctor ordered for Tampa Bay.

Now, the Lightning must build on that momentum as they embark on a lengthy stretch through late December where they will often lay every other day and be at home for the majority of the stretch.

Their first test comes at home Thursday against a young New York Rangers team that handed Tampa Bay a humbling 4-1 loss at Madison Square Garden 2½ weeks ago.

In that game, a Rangers team that played seven players 21 or younger and out-grinded the Lightning, scoring three third-period goals for a win. After the game, Cooper said his team played tentatively, and McDonagh said they played like a group that lacked confidence and needed to concentrate on getting better at the little things that win games.

They’ll have the opportunity to show they’re grown since then. McDonagh said the trip to Sweden helped immensely.

“I think we kind of understand what’s going to give us a good chance to win every night,” McDonagh said. "We can’t just rely on our skill game and our talent. We’ve got to play well as a team and do the little things when we don’t have the puck and take care of that puck when we do have it.

"I think that's what we've understood here and learned over the course of the what might seem like a short two or three weeks," he added. "But in our eyes it's a long time in our business. So it's a good sign that guys are wanting to buy in and wanting to do those things to help the team win."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper echoed that sentiment.

"I would say our mindset is a little bit different," Cooper said. "I think we've grown in the last week or so. Sweden had a lot to do with that."

The Lightning's practice on Wednesday, their first after Cooper gave the team three days off after returning from Sweden, marked the first time they skated on Amalie Arena ice in 18 days.

The Lightning play six of their remaining nine games this month — and 16 of their next 22 — at Amalie Arena. And after games being so spread out — in part because of their trip abroad — they will play 20 games in their next 40 days.

MORE HOCKEY: Legendary commentator Don Cherry fired.

The Lightning have just 18 points this season, which ranked 11th in the Eastern Conference, but because of their schedule they have played just 15 games going into Thursday, which is the fewest in the league.

"It will be nice here come the end of November and into December to get a little rhythm here at home, and hopefully we can get a little traction," Cooper said. "We've got a little bit of catching up to do. Unfortunately, it's going to be back to backs, a lot of games kind of mushed together, but if you've got your game in order, and we've prepared for this, we should be alright. "

Cooper said there’s always concern about the first home game back from a long road trip, and pointed to the Lightning’s 6-2 home loss to the Avalanche on Oct. 19, their first game back at Amalie Arena after six games and two weeks away as an example.

“That first game back is always a tough one,” Cooper said. “And so mentally we have to be prepared for it. It happened I think against Colorado this year our first one back. ... It’s tough, and I don’t know what it is. It’s been through the history of the game that that game’s a tough one, but guys are looking forward to playing in front of the home crowd I know that.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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