NEWARK, N.J. — The Lightning have just 14 games left before the postseason begins, so the opportunities to experiment with line combinations for the playoffs are drying up.
They’re trying to integrate two new players — Tanner Jeannot and Mikey Eyssimont — into the fold while testing the right formula to make them a tougher team to play against when it matters most.
If there’s one thing we learned from their 4-1 win over the Devils on Tuesday night, it’s that Brandon Hagel is on the Lightning’s top scoring line to stay after his three-point, plus-4 performance.
“I’m playing with some Hall of Fame players with (Brayden Point) and (Nikita Kucherov),” Hagel said. “Everyone knows those names, but I just try to go out there and work my hardest and when you get those guys the puck, I think good things are going to happen.”
Where the Lightning slot out from there is what they’re focusing on down the stretch. When healthy, they have a lot of options.
“Part of that, it depends on your personnel,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Have we had formulas that have worked for us in the past? Yes we have. But your personnel dictates a lot about how this works. I always say that the regular season is an 82-game dress rehearsal for the playoffs. So that’s how you figure it out.”
During Wednesday’s off-day practice, Cooper tested out a new look.
“It’s chemistry,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure we know who can play with who. You need lines that can score, you need secondary scoring, but you need a line that can check, so you try to mix that all in.”
Hagel has been a Swiss Army knife for the Lightning. He has excelled playing with Point and Kucherov, but when matched with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn also forms a solid, two-way checking line that presents matchup problems — as they did in the Eastern Conference finals last postseason.
Wednesday, Cooper tried out a new-look second line with Jeannot paired with Cirelli and Killorn. Lines also included Steven Stamkos matched with Ross Colton and Nick Paul, which allows the Lightning captain to return to where he is most comfortable at the center position. When Stamkos was playing on the top line with Point and Kucherov, he was at the left wing.
The Lightning also had Eyssimont centering a line with Pat Maroon and Corey Perry.
“I think you’re trying to find something that at least you know guys are comfortable with heading into the playoffs,” said Stamkos, who was back at practice after sitting out Tuesday’s game to give his injured knee a break. “You don’t want to be juggling all over the place come playoff time. So we’ll see what happened down the stretch and we’ll probably have some different looks here in the next couple of games to see if anything clicks.
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“We have kind of (found that) in terms of (Point’s) line with (Hagel) and (Kucherov). We know that works really well. But (Cirelli), (Killorn) and (Hagel) was a really good checking line, too. So Coop has some decisions to make, but this is where you want to try some things down the stretch and see what works.”
How Jeannot, whose heavy game matches a checking line role, fits in will play a major part.
Stamkos, meanwhile, has been clear that he believes playing in the middle brings out his best game, as it did last postseason when he played there after Point was injured.
“We’ve had a lot of success with different positions in the past,” Stamkos said. “I just come to the rink and try to make the best of the situation wherever I am. But we’ll see what happens here down the stretch, and if I get a chance to play in the middle, hopefully I can take advantage of it.”
And getting Stamkos going is important for the Lightning’s postseason prognosis. Stamkos has just three goals over his last 21 games and is a minus-12 over that stretch, but he can get hot quickly — as he did at the end of last season and into the postseason.
The Lightning have their first-round opponent essentially set — barring a major shakeup, they will have a rematch against the Maple Leafs — but they still have a lot to play for. Despite their recent struggles, the Lightning entered Wednesday’s schedule just two points behind Toronto. And winning home-ice advantage in that series can help the Lightning utilize line matchups more often having the final change at home.
“You’re just trying to build chemistry in practice, and communication is huge in this league,” Maroon said. “You’ve got to talk and make sure everyone’s feeling comfortable. Guys are going to be in and out of the lineup, and we just have to support each other, pick each other up and work hard, and hopefully everything falls back into place to where it was last year.”
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