December typically has been moving month for the Lightning

After a slow start to the season, Tampa Bay has taken hold of a potential playoff spot with steady play during the past month.
A home-heavy schedule and the return of center Anthony Cirelli have allowed the Lightning to take control of a top-three division playoff spot in the month of December.
A home-heavy schedule and the return of center Anthony Cirelli have allowed the Lightning to take control of a top-three division playoff spot in the month of December. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2022|Updated Dec. 24, 2022

TAMPA — The Lightning stumbled into their holiday break with back-to-back division losses Tuesday in Toronto and Wednesday in Detroit. While the defeats were missed opportunities, Tampa Bay still can be proud of the progress it has made in the Atlantic Division this month.

Coach Jon Cooper has looked at December as an important month, a time when his team should start rounding into form. It has had enough time to get adjusted to new teammates and get past early season hiccups. Before the losses to the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, the Lightning were 7-0-1 this month.

Championships aren’t won in December, but it is the time in the season when the contenders start to separate themselves and want to start accumulating points.

This time last year, the Lightning went 9-2-0 (including three overtime wins) in December to overcome a sputtering start to the season and enter the new year leading the division and tied with the Hurricanes and Capitals for the most points in the Eastern Conference.

“Notoriously, we’ve been a good December team, and we’re doing the same thing again,” Cooper said before Wednesday’s game. “I like to come out of that Christmas break in a good spot. Usually, we’ve been at home during that time, which we are again. We’ve been able to parlay that into an advantage for us.”

The Lightning (20-11-1, 41 points) currently reside in the same spot — third in the Atlantic behind the Bruins and Maple Leafs — that they did at the beginning of the month. But they have distanced themselves from the teams behind them. On Dec. 1, they were three points ahead of the Panthers and four in front of the Canadiens. Entering Friday’s games, the Lightning were six points ahead of the Red Wings, seven up on the Sabres and Panthers, and eight ahead of the Canadiens.

Tampa Bay has benefited from a two-week home stretch in which it won five of six, including victories over Toronto and Florida.

“It’s not like we talked about that, but you’re cognizant of where you are in the playoff race,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “But I think we started, like, seven or eight of the first nine or 10 games were on the road this year (seven of 10). It was a tough start, and we didn’t have the greatest start.

“And it was nice to have a little homestand where we knew we’re comfortable playing there and we can navigate some points. … We know we needed to create some separation, and we’re in a good, decent spot right now.”

The Lightning’s December success has been the result of playing better defense. They went through a five-game winning streak this month in which they held opponents to two goals or fewer. Over that span, they limited turnovers that led to rushes the other way and protected the middle of the ice in their zone.

The return of two-way center Anthony Cirelli following offseason shoulder surgery helped in many ways, giving the Lightning better depth across all four lines, allowing them to match up better defensively and helping a penalty kill that went 21-for-22 over an eight-game stretch following his return.

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Now the Lightning have to shore up their game against Toronto and Detroit. They have lost three of four to those division foes this month, and the two losses heading into the break were especially frustrating. The Lightning allowed an average of 4.5 goals over those four games this month, though two goals in each of the three losses were scored into an empty net.

When the Lightning return from their extended break — Friday’s game in Buffalo was rescheduled, giving them two extra days off; the league-mandated break is today through Monday — they close out the month with three games at home, against the Canadiens on Wednesday, the Rangers on Thursday and the Coyotes on Saturday.

“You’ve got to navigate the dog days, which kind of become that January and February, but you have to have yourself in a position to make the playoffs,” Cooper said. “Right now, we’ve put ourselves in that position. But now, it’s navigating through that post-Christmas time. So, happy with what we’ve done pre-Christmas. Now let’s see what happens when we do get to the dog days.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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