TAMPA — The Lightning returned to Tampa from their four-game, nine-day road trip with a bad taste in their mouths after a 5-4 loss in Las Vegas on Saturday night, the only game of the four in which they did not earn a point.
But their final trip through the Western Conference this season was an important one that showed a lot about the team as it enters the stretch run of the regular season.
Here are three things to take away from the trip:
Every point matters
The Lightning earned five of a possible eight points on the trip, opening with wins in Dallas and Colorado, playing the type of defensive-minded hockey needed in the playoffs.
Though unable to crack Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram in Arizona, they played well defensively and nabbed a point in a shootout loss. But after a weird opening period in Las Vegas — the Lightning were down 4-2 after the first 20 minutes — they felt they were outplaying the Golden Knights in many ways. But a comeback never materialized in the third period — Tampa Bay has outscored opponents 71-62 and won five games when trailing after two — and the missed opportunity could be seen in the standings.
After pushing to close the gap with Toronto for second place in the Atlantic Division — and home-ice advantage in a potential first-round playoff meeting with the Leafs — they returned home three points back.
While the Lightning have often dismissed the notion that home ice matters in the playoffs — and they have won many postseason series without it — that they have played so well at home this season (21-4-2) — as has Toronto (22-6-4) — indicates that having home ice in a matchup between the teams might mean something.
Early leads are key
Games aren’t decided in the first period, and one dominant period doesn’t automatically earn two points. But the Lightning are a different team when they start well and take a lead into the first intermission.
The Lightning are 20-0-1 in games in which they have led after the opening period. They recovered with a strong second period Saturday and cut the Golden Knights’ lead to one goal, but the Lightning are not at their best when chasing a game.
There’s a big difference between getting pucks on goal and using possession to put pressure on the defense, and the Lightning’s aggressiveness didn’t achieve the latter Saturday. Even late in the third, after goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made a superb save inside the final two minutes, the Lightning yielded an empty-net goal when they couldn’t maintain possession with an extra attacker, something that has occurred too much this season in 6-on-5 play.
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Depth is important
If there’s one way the Lightning are looking to upgrade by the March 3 trade deadline it’s getting more forward depth. Given their salary cap restraints (they have only $719,967 of cap room, less than a league-minimum salary), they will have to move a player to get a player. But on this road trip, they got a refreshing jolt from their bottom-six forwards.
The Lightning received three goals from their fourth line in Las Vegas, including Vladislav Namestnikov’s second in three games after scoring just four goals in his first 50 games. The Lightning also received goals from Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
While getting secondary scoring is big, especially in the playoffs when teams need contributions across all four lines, puck possession might be even more important. The fourth line needs to wear down opponents, control the puck and make the other team work. Despite playing just 6:22 in Las Vegas, that’s what the line of Namestnikov, Bellemare and Perry did, dominating in shot attempts 8-3.
The Lightning might be spending the days leading up to the trade deadline watching other teams upgrade. They have already seen Toronto improve by getting forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari from St. Louis, but they’ll need the mentality that this roster as is can win a championship and treat any rabbit that general manager Julien BriseBois can pull out of his hat as a bonus.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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