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Five things to watch as Lightning search for postseason form

Its playoff berth secured, here’s what we want to see to feel better about Tampa Bay’s postseason prospects.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his game-wining overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his game-wining overtime goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets Sunday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 30
Updated May 1

TAMPA — The Lightning have their ticket to the postseason punched. Given their fast start, there wasn’t much doubt they’d get there. And they still have plenty to play for, with a chance to earn home-ice advantage for the postseason.

But the focus is on using the remaining games on their schedule to round into playoff form. The team’s “process over outcome” mantra might never be more relevant than it is now.

The Lightning are already a strong contender to win their second straight Stanley Cup. They have been since January. Part of this is nit-picking, because Tampa Bay earned a playoff spot fighting through the NHL’s tightest division race. But Cups are won with an attention to detail.

So, with a few games remaining, here are five things we’d like to see from the Lightning to feel better about their postseason hopes.

Tighten things up defensively

Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on as the Florida Panthers celebrate the first goal of the game a game earlier this month in Tampa.
Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) looks on as the Florida Panthers celebrate the first goal of the game a game earlier this month in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

This is the top concern in the Lightning locker room. Throughout the season, head coach Jon Cooper has been troubled by turnovers that allowed odd-man rushes and high-danger scoring opportunities for the opponent. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped a lot of those, but sloppy play in the neutral and defensive zones cost Tampa Bay goals and, in a few cases, games.

After the Lightning’s playoff-clinching win over Chicago Tuesday, defenseman Mikhail Sergachev bemoaned that it was the seventh time in 12 games they’d allowed four or more goals. “In the playoffs, that’s not going to be good (enough) for us,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got to figure it out. We’re on the right track, but we’ve just got to keep our goals low and help our goalie and block some shots and just be on it every game, because in the playoffs, every game could be your last, pretty much.”

Sergachev is on point. The Lightning have the best goaltender in the game, but they have to start making things easier for Vasilevskiy in the postseason. Thursday’s 3-0 shutout win was a step in the right direction.

Progress in Steven Stamkos’ recovery

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) is checked along the glass as he battles Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei (76) during a game in February in Tampa.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) is checked along the glass as he battles Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Brady Skjei (76) during a game in February in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Stamkos, on long-term injured reserved with an undisclosed lower-body injury, has yet to return to practice. The longer he’s absent, the less likely it becomes that he will return when eligible on Wednesday. We know this: The Lightning will be extremely careful with Stamkos. They don’t want a repeat of last year, when his recovery had multiple setbacks.

There’s no reason to rush Stamkos back for the remaining regular-season games. With both Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who is nearing a return from hip surgery, time is more valuable than anything else.

The Lightning could get more than a week off following the regular season, as the Canadian teams finish their remaining games. So if we don’t see Stamkos by the end of the regular season, it’s not necessarily bad news, but more the teamt using the extra time to allow him to be his best for the postseason.

More offense from Anthony Cirelli

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins makes a save against the Lightning's Anthony Cirelli during a game earlier this month in Tampa.
Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Elvis Merzlikins makes a save against the Lightning's Anthony Cirelli during a game earlier this month in Tampa. [ MIKE CARLSON | AP ]

There’s a lot more that Cirelli, one of the league’s top defensive forwards, does than score goals. But he’s entering Saturday’s game with none in his last 20 games.

The Lightning’s offense seems to be coming around after a rocky three-week stretch that saw several goal-less streaks. Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn have emerged from droughts and are now two of the Lightning’s hottest offensive players.

And that’s the key. Cirelli contributes in so many ways, which is why he’ll likely be mentioned in the Selke Trophy conversation for years to come. But it’s the confidence that comes from lighting the lamp after a long drought that’s important, especially when you’ve seen some of the quality scoring chances Cirelli has.

A strong showing against the Panthers

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) beats Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger (60) during a game earlier this month in Tampa.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) beats Florida Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger (60) during a game earlier this month in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning and Panthers could meet in the first round of the playoffs, and the teams face each other in the final two games of the regular season May 8 and 10 in Sunrise. Given how tight the division race has been, it’s likely this seriescould have playoff-positioning implications.

But it’s also important because these teams are very evenly matched. The Lightning are 3-3 against Florida, the only team they don’t own a winning record against this season. Tampa Bay has struggled to stifle a quick, aggressive Panthers offense, allowing an average of 3.63 goals per game — the most they’ve yielded against any team.

Confidence in goaltending depth

Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) guards the net against the Columbus Blue Jackets during a game earlier this month in Tampa.
Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney (35) guards the net against the Columbus Blue Jackets during a game earlier this month in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

This is probably less of a factor than it might seem, but it’s important, nonetheless. Carolina, Florida, Nashville and Dallas all have nice goaltending tandems, but the Lightning have only a 5-5-1 record (entering Saturday) when Vasilevskiy’s not in net. Curtis McElhinney showed he was much more exposed to some of those defensive breakdowns, though he stopped 24 of 25 shots last Saturday against Columbus.

After this weekend in Detroit, the Lightning have one more back-to-back set Friday and Saturday, so expect to see McElhinney in one of those games. Still, expect the Lightning to ride Vasilevskiy much as they did during last year’s Stanley Cup run, when he played all 25 games in the bubble.

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