Phew. It’s over. The Lightning got through 13 games in 21 days. They made it to their bye week and the All-Star break.
The stretch saw the Lightning play four sets of back-to-back games, play five home games and make three road trips, including two visits to Canada.
They had this stint circled. They knew the three weeks from the Christmas break to the All-Star break would be tough. They looked tired to start Friday’s game against the Jets, their last one before the break, but as Alex Killorn said, there was nothing to save energy for with nine days to recover.
So how’d the Lightning do in this stretch? Well, we saw a 10-game winning streak and the Lightning move from sixth place in the Atlantic Division to second.
“Now we just have to continue to build on this game for the second half of the season,” coach Jon Cooper said after the 7-1 win over the Jets. “(The Lightning players) haven’t changed the way they’ve played, but they’re just a more responsible, aware group and finding ways to win.”
Ryan McDonagh was forced to sit out six games with an injury during this stretch. He got to watch his team’s defense come together. He saw the Lightning improve in their zone, playing more in sync and thus giving up fewer scoring chances.
He said it’s good to see offensive play coming out of defensive structure, rather than individuals cheating defensively and take risks to try to create something.
The Lightning came out of the Christmas break with a win over the Canadiens that was harder than it needed to be. They gave up the first 18 shots and let Montreal build a three-goal lead before they got started, then had to come back for a 5-4 win.
In the next few games, starts were a concern. The Lightning had to come from behind to beat the Red Wings and Sabres as well. But they figured that out.
More recently, they went through an offensive blip. In three of four games, the Lightning scored only one or two goals. After Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Minnesota, Cooper said scoring is a commitment: “You have to commit (to) going to the net, and you have to commit to shooting pucks.” He didn’t believe his team had shown that commitment.
The next night, the Lightning put up seven goals. Count that as another issue addressed.
That’s what a good team does: It fixes problems as they come up.
“When we have a bad game like we did (Thursday), we responded and played the right way,” McDonagh said. “That’s a great sign, when you can adjust on the fly.”
When the winning streak — which tied the franchise record and was the league’s longest active one — ended in New Jersey a week ago Sunday with a 3-1 loss, the response became important. It was a weird game, not necessarily an awful one, but the second in a row where the offense dipped, following a 1-0 win against the Flyers the day before.
The Lightning came back with a win over the Kings on Tuesday, but they needed a shootout against the last-place team in the Western Conference. The loss to the Wild was bad. The Lightning got away from how they had been playing. Steven Stamkos called them flat-footed.
The win over the Jets put the Lightning back on track. They played a strong defensive game.
“Coming from a game where we were a little flat (Thursday) night and didn’t play the way we wanted, in a tough back-to-back here, you have to like the response from the guys,” Cooper said. “So it paid off.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, a late addition to Friday and Saturday’s All-Star event in St. Louis, has been the Lightning’s star through these three weeks. He won all nine of his starts, with a .943 save percentage. Going back further, he’s on a 10-game winning streak and a 12-game point streak.
Now the Lightning have nine days off. They go back out on the road after that for their second-longest trip of the season, visiting the Stars, Kings, Ducks and Sharks starting Jan. 27.
They return to Amalie Arena on Feb. 4 for a three-game homestand against the Golden Knights, Penguins and Islanders.