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Best part of back-to-back Lightning games in Ottawa and Carolina? They’re over

Slap Shots: The Lightning are back after a brutal road trip. John Tortorella’s massive fine likely will deter coaches from speaking out on bad calls. And can Tampa Bay make a deep playoff run?
Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk (7) tries to get a piece of the puck off a pad-save by Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during third period in Ottawa on Saturday.
Ottawa Senators left wing Brady Tkachuk (7) tries to get a piece of the puck off a pad-save by Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) during third period in Ottawa on Saturday. [ JUSTIN TANG | AP ]
Published Jan. 6, 2020|Updated Jan. 7, 2020

TAMPA — Before the season even started, the Lightning had this one marked on their calendar. Sunday’s game at Carolina was the hardest on the schedule. And not because of the opponent.

“I’ve been in the league a while and that was one of the worst back-to-backs,” Steven Stamkos said after beating the Hurricanes 3-1 — a day removed from a win in Ottawa. “Playing in Canada, clearing customs, getting in a 2:45 in the morning. We knew this was going to be a tough one.”

Normally, back-to-backs are played in two nearby locations. Montreal and Ottawa are a two-hour bus ride apart. Tampa to Sunrise is a 45-minute flight. Madison Square Garden to Newark is a 30-minute drive, depending on New York traffic.

Related: Lightning extend win streak to seven games against Carolina

Those are easy trips. Even the two-hour flight from Washington back to Tampa wasn’t bad. This one was long enough that Lightning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk hadn’t thought it was allowed.

Asked on Saturday what his worst back-to-back was, he said to ask him on Monday. Bet we know the answer.

Others pointed to instances when weather made a mess of short trips or the even longer trips of juniors.

The Lightning had a trip years ago where New Jersey to Detroit became an all-night mess. Flights had been delayed all day and pushed the Lightning’s charter back. They got de-iced multiple times before they finally took off. The team ended up checking into the hotel at 5 a.m.

Some of the worst travel wasn’t on back-to-backs, like when the team couldn’t land in Ottawa and was diverted to Syracuse for the night in 2018. Or the trip from Buffalo to Montreal when they had to unload the plane, spend the night in Buffalo and try again in the morning.

“It’s not the worst,” goalie Curtis McElhinney said. “We still have a charter plane and a great hotel.”

The NHL’s worst doesn’t compare to juniors in the Western Hockey League for Braydon Coburn and Luke Schenn.

Schenn recounted an eight-hour bus trip from Kelowna, British Columbia, to Seattle. It might not have been so bad if the second game hadn’t been an afternoon puck drop.

“We used to have a lot of three-in-threes,” Schenn said. “By the third game, you don’t even think or feel your body. You’re just trying not to pass out.”

Coach Jon Cooper points to three-in-threes from his AHL days as the worst. For his partial season in Syracuse, the teams were close enough that it was usually only a couple-hour bus ride. But coming from Norfolk was another story. Just about every team was around a 10-hour bus ride away.

“I don’t call them three-in-threes,” he said referring to the Sunday matinees. “They’re three-in-two-and-a-halves. That’s what they are.”

The Lightning’s hardest trip is over, but they do have one more international back-to-back in two weeks. At least Minnesota and Winnipeg are a quick flight apart.

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Quick hits with Curtis McElhinney

Poster in childhood bedroom: McEhinney had a pretty sweet setup as a kid. His dad owned a sports bar, so he had a good poster hookup. A life-sized Michael Jordan one (Chicago Bulls) stands out.

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First car: When he was 21 years old, a senior in college, McEhinney’s parents bought him a Dodge Dakota.

Go-to coffee shop order: When McEhinney, now 36, and his wife had kids 11 years ago, he started drinking coffee. But he takes it black. No stuff in it.

So, I had a thought

This Oct. 5, 2019, file photo shows Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella objecting to a call during the first period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. A furious post-game rant by Tortorella over clock management in a Dec. 29 overtime loss was “unprofessional along with unacceptable,” an NHL official said.
This Oct. 5, 2019, file photo shows Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella objecting to a call during the first period of a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh. A furious post-game rant by Tortorella over clock management in a Dec. 29 overtime loss was “unprofessional along with unacceptable,” an NHL official said. [ GENE J. PUSKAR | AP ]

• Coach John Tortorella unleashed a heck of a rant about the officiating after his Blue Jackets lost to the Blackhawks on Dec. 29 (not the first loss to them this season). The thing is, he was right. The officials screwed up the clock and admitted as much to players. There should have been 1.1 second adjusted on the clock, which would have been just enough time for Zach Werenski’s goal to count. Then Joonas Korpisalo wouldn’t have gotten hurt — he’s expected to miss four to six weeks after surgery on a torn meniscus — in the shootout. So Tortorella ranted and not only was he fined $20,000, but the league also levied a $25,000 conditional fine for “similar inappropriate behavior” in the next year. That’s new … and weird.

• On Saturday, Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice didn’t elaborate on a play he thought was goaltender interference because “they’re not getting a dime from me.” Tortorella’s expletive-laced rant was expensive, no argument there. There should be a middle ground, though. Officials take a lot of flack from everybody, already. But there should also be an avenue for coaches to publicly call for accountability.

• Buffalo’s gonna Buffalo. That can be all encompassing. (See Saturday’s NFL wild card game with the Bills.) The Sabres started out the season hot with all kinds of talk about how this was the year, they had figured things out. Turns out ... they haven’t. In their past 10 games, they are 3-6-1. They’ve been sinking down the division as it starts to look like a four-horse race in the Atlantic (Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Florida). Oh, Buffalo.

Three-on-three

Easiest back-to-backs this year: 3. Rangers-Devils. 2. Buffalo-Buffalo in Sweden. 1. Columbus-New York at home.

Related: Who starts in a back-to-back and a Ryan McDonagh update

Fewest games played: T3. Lightning, Rangers, Ducks, Devils, 41. T1. Islanders, Predators, 40.

Prospect performances at World Juniors: 3. Maxim Cajkovic. 2. Nolan Foote. 1. Hugo Alnefelt.

Question for the Lightning

Is this team poised to go deep in the playoffs?

Well, if I learned anything from last year, it was not to predict anything. But the Lightning are starting to put together their game. No, it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t need to be in January. The pieces are there, if not all at the same time. I don’t entirely buy the whole “we never faced adversity” argument from last year, but there’s no denying that teams that had been pushing in March, rolled into April. Teams that had things locked up, had to find that extra gear. I’m not advocating the best way in is through a wild card, but playing meaningful games. There was a difference in how Montreal came out as it clawed for a playoff spot in Game 81, and it looked like Columbus and Carolina did when they got to the playoffs. Plus, I’m planning a wedding for July, so Murphy’s Law says there will be a deep playoff run first.

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