TAMPA — The Lightning had control of Sunday’s game against the Devils after Alex Killorn scored early in the second period to put them up two goals. Nine seconds later, New Jersey answered, and from then on Tampa Bay seemed physically and mentally worn down.
The Devils scored five straight goals, sending the Lightning to a 5-2 loss.
Tampa Bay’s schedule over the past month has been a grind. It is nearing the end of a 19-games-over-33 days stretch. Combine that with the fact that they have played almost an entire season of additional games during the past three postseasons, and the Lightning have to guard against fatigue as the playoffs draw near.
Tampa Bay will play 16 games in March. Dating back to a Feb. 21 home game against the Ducks,
the Lightning haven’t had more than one day off between games. Sunday’s contest was the end of four straight weekends of back-to-back games.
Coming out of the All-Star break the first weekend of February, the Lightning had four games in hand as they chased the Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic Division. Now, entering Tuesday’s games, Toronto has played two fewer games than Tampa Bay.
“It’s been a tough stretch for the boys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
With just 11 games left in the regular season, Tampa Bay (42-23-6, 90 points) on Monday boarded its team charter for consecutive road games at Montreal, Ottawa, Boston and Carolina over the next eight days.
The Lightning seem to have rebounded from their low point, a five-game winless streak Feb. 26-March 5. Despite Sunday’s loss to New Jersey, Tampa Bay is 5-2-1 in its last eight games. Still, it has struggled to put together a full 60-minute effort, its game sometimes teetering from period to period. With the physical, tight-space game of the playoffs approaching, the margin for error shrinks.
“The biggest part of this part of the season is the rest,” Cooper said. “The practice time is out the window. Maybe we get one a week now for the rest of the year. To me, it’s all about the mental rest, the physical rest for our guys. To me, we have so many games, now it’s all about playing the games. If they don’t know what we’re doing in our system from 65 games in, then that’s a whole different problem. But our guys are dialed in. But for me, it’s keeping our guys as fresh as possible, which is really, really tough this time of year.”
The coaching staff has done what it can to help.
When the Lightning played two games over three days last week in New Jersey, both game-day skates were optional, allowing players to arrive at the arena later than usual. Cooper has rotated some of the team’s defensemen and bottom-six forwards to give them games off while experimenting with line combinations and pairings. After captain Steven Stamkos sat out Tuesday’s game to help his injured left knee recover, he said just taking one game off offered a valuable mental break.
“It’s a lot of hockey,” said defenseman Victor Hedman. “But it’s the same for everyone. You want to be at your best here in a few weeks. And, you know, it’s all about preparation. It’s all about being mentally ready for a long run. But we want to make sure that we feel confident going into the fun stuff and just keep plugging away.”
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While rest is important, Tampa Bay also wants to be playing well and organized as it enters the postseason. The playoffs are scheduled to open on April 17. Barring jumping the Leafs in the standings, the Lightning will open the postseason in Toronto.
“You only have so long to play this game,” Cooper said. “And you can sit there and say, ‘Well, we played so much hockey over the last three years and basically a full season worth more than other teams.’ That’s true, but the rewards far outweigh any time you can have rest in the summer. Players’ careers are short. You take advantage when you can.”
Cooper said it’s up to the team’s leaders to prevent fatigue from becoming an excuse in the locker room.
“This is excitement time,” he said. “We don’t (officially) have a playoff spot yet. So, we have to get into the playoffs. But it’s such a fun time when you’re in there. These dog days, they’re tough, but we’re not the only team that has to do it. Everybody’s doing it.”
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