SEATTLE — The Lightning have reached the midway point of the regular season where they want to be, entrenched in a playoff spot. They were mostly pleased with their play through the first 41 games, while realizing they have a long way to go to meet their goal of reaching a fourth straight Stanley Cup final and ultimately hoisting the trophy again.
Going into Monday’s game against the Kraken at Climate Pledge Arena, the Lightning (27-13-1) hold the Atlantic Division’s third playoff spot behind the Bruins and Maple Leafs. They are ahead of the next-closest teams, the Sabres and Panthers, by 11 points.
“We don’t play perfect hockey all year, but we’ve grown as a team and I like looking at where we’re sitting,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I know we’re third in our division behind two really good teams, but we’re continuing to put ourselves in a position to hopefully make the playoffs, and that’s our goal. So if you look halfway through (the season) now, we’ve done just that.”
On their way to three straight Cup finals the past three seasons, the Lightning were never concerned about where they were seeded in the postseason, knowing that disciplined play would trump home-ice advantage. But to continue that, they’ll have to play better on the road. Following their 4-2 win in St. Louis on Saturday, they are 10-9-0 away from Amalie Arena.
The Lightning entered Sunday with the second-most points at home (35 in 22 games) and averaged a league-best 4.1 goals a game at home. They haven’t lost more than two games in a row, continuing to be a team that makes adjustments.
“We’ve done a really good job at taking care of home ice, and we need to continue to do that,” forward Brandon Hagel said. “I think we’ve been able to bounce back from not-so-good performances. We haven’t really gone through a ton of down slope, I guess you can say. We’ve handled adversity. We’ve been doing a really good job of sticking with the process and trusting the system.”
Special-teams play has been a strength. Tampa Bay’s power play ranked second in the league, trailing Edmonton (31.3%), with a 29.2% success rate. The Lightning’s penalty kill was a work in progress early as the club had to find the right personnel. But after a 19-game stretch in which they killed off 49 of 56 penalties (87.5%), the Lightning ranked ninth in the league on the penalty kill at 81.3%.
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“Our special teams have really come into their own,” Cooper said. “I think our (penalty kill) struggled a little bit early but the last 25 games has really done well for us. For the most part, we’ve taken less penalties.
“In spurts, it’s been tough on us, but I think we’ve gotten better at that. The (power play) is humming at the pace that we’re usually seeing, so I like that about our game.”
The Lightning would like to shore up defensively, particularly reducing turnovers that lead to Grade-A scoring chances for opponents.
“I think we’re trending in the right direction,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “We have high offensive firepower, so I think we’re not too worried about trying to put up goals. I think it’s more trying to keep them out of our net.”
The Lightning went through a stretch of holding opponents to two goals or fewer in eight of 11 games, but Saturday’s win was their only game in the past five in which they allowed fewer than three.
Cooper said the team took a step forward defensively with a lock-down third period against the Blues, holding them scoreless and limiting them to two scoring chances in the final 20 minutes after allowing two third-period goals in each of their previous two games.
But that game still wasn’t perfect. The Lightning allowed two breakaways early in the first period and fell behind 1-0.
“You don’t want to start like that, but for the most part, especially in the third period, I liked how we managed that game, but we’ve done that quite a bit of late,” Cooper said.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
Lightning defenseman Nick Perbix, who took a hit against the end boards late in the second period Saturday and did not return, isn’t likely to play Monday against Seattle. “This isn’t really long term, but he’s pretty sore today,” Cooper said. “So he’s most probably out for (Monday).” ... During his media availability Sunday, Cooper wore a shirt to show his support for former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber’s Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy. For the third straight year, Barber is one of 15 finalists. “It’s more than overdue and so showing the support for my guy,” Cooper said. “It’d be nothing more deserving than him getting into the Hall of Fame. He’s a big supporter of us and the feeling’s mutual.”
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