TAMPA — Before heading into next week’s NHL All-Star break, the Lightning have a key stretch of three home games against teams they have yet to beat this season.
Tampa Bay’s just-completed five-game road trip, its longest of the season, started well with wins in St. Louis, Seattle and Vancouver. But losses in Edmonton and Calgary served as a reminder that it still has work to do to become a complete team.
“We started off really well,” Lightning forward Brandon Hagel said. “We got those three straight (wins), and the goal is to get more points than games played, and we did that. But at the same time, you had two left and you think at least you could go sneak at least one (more) and you’re in a pretty good position.
“Obviously, it didn’t go our way. It is what it is. It just puts a lot more pressure on us coming home to playing three teams we haven’t beat this year. It’ll be a good test for us. And just before the break, I guess playing at home you have nothing to save.”
The next week includes games against three teams — Minnesota, Boston and Los Angeles — currently sitting in playoff positions that held Tampa Bay to two or fewer goals in three of their four meetings this season, all Lightning losses.
“We all know who they are,” Hagel said. “They’re good hockey teams. We’ve got to be good for 60 minutes every game. When you play these teams, you let off in the third period, you let off anytime throughout the game they’re going to take advantage of it. That’s just the reality of it, and if we’re not ready to play a full 60 minutes, then good luck to us.”
The Lightning (29-15-1, 59 points) currently sit in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, eight points ahead of a surging Panthers squad that entered Monday with a 7-2-1 record in its last 10 games.
Tampa Bay has played its best hockey at Amalie Arena, going 17-4-1. As of Monday, its 35 points at home were third-most in the league, behind only Boston (47) and Toronto (38), the two teams it trails in the Atlantic Division. Its 90 goals at home were tied for third-most in the league.
The home stretch opens Tuesday night against the Wild. The Lightning lost 5-1 Jan. 4 in Minnesota in the second of road games on back-to-back nights. Backup goaltender Brian Elliott was pushed into service for a second straight game because Andrei Vasilevskiy was ill.
Tampa Bay had some unfortunate bounces go against it. Minnesota jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first 30 minutes, its first goal going in off the skate of defenseman Nick Perbix. After the Lightning cut the lead to two, the Wild restored their three-goal advantage on a puck that deflected off Minnesota center Sam Steel’s skate. And after Tampa Bay pulled Elliott for an extra attacker in the closing minutes, a wobbly puck got Ross Colton and gave Kirill Kaprizov an empty net for his second goal of the game.
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The Lightning’s focus this week will be on limiting those kinds of offensive chances, especially after ending the most recent trip by allowing a total of 11 goals in the losses to Edmonton and Calgary.
“We felt like we scored enough goals to win those games,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We just gave up too much, and whether it was fatigue, whether it was mental fatigue, who knows. But we’re better than that. ... Now we’re home for three before the break against some teams we’ve struggled with this year. So this is a big test for us, and there should be a little urgency to us after we’ve dropped our last two.”
The Lightning could be without forward Pat Maroon, who left Saturday’s game in Calgary favoring his right shoulder and in obvious pain. Maroon did not practice Monday, and Cooper said after practice that his status was uncertain. However, the Lightning should back get Perbix, who missed the past four games with an injury, on Tuesday.
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