TAMPA — This is what an epic comeback looks like. Wins, milestones and celebrations all around.
For three weeks, the Lightning have been playing with confidence and commitment. The 6-3 victory against New Jersey on Saturday night gave them eight wins in their past nine games and put them right back in the picture for a postseason spot.
All that’s left is 32 regular-season games.
And some nagging doubt.
That’s what nearly three months of uneven play does to a hockey team. It makes you realize everything that can possibly go wrong. Age and injuries. Depth and disarray. Or maybe just the inevitability of misfortune catching up with a franchise that nearly cornered the market on glory for a spell.
Are we seeing a very good team coming together, or a middling team on a roll?
Honestly, it’s hard to tell. There’s no doubt the Lightning have been playing better hockey the past few weeks, but most of those games have been at home where they have excelled. And a lot of those games have been against teams that are not currently in the playoff picture.
So how close are the Lightning to being a team that can excel in April?
“It’s hard to answer that question,” coach Jon Cooper said before Saturday’s game. “Are we fully healthy (in April), are we not? Is our mentality in the right spot? Right now, it is. Are our elite players playing elite? They are. So if you have that going for you, that’s always a good start.”
The good news is the Lightning seem to have rectified a season-long problem with defense. After giving up 3.48 goals per game through the first half of the season, they have held opponents to 2.33 goals in the past nine games. The difference between two and three goals is basically the dividing line between success and mediocrity for the Lightning.
Hold a team to two goals or less, and the Lightning are 12-1. Give up three goals or more, and they are 14-22.
“Our commitment to play D has really escalated here in this last month,” Cooper said, “and we’re seeing results because of it.”
It also brings up an interesting point. The defense has gotten tighter since Mikhail Sergachev went down with an injury in December. Rookies Emil Lilleberg and Max Crozier have only 17 games of NHL experience between them but have had eye-opening results with Sergachev and Erik Cernak out of the lineup.
“Crozier and Lilleberg have been fantastic on the back end for us,” Cooper said.
Confidence has also grown as the Lightning have climbed the standings. Two weeks ago, they blew a two-goal lead against the Devils before winning in overtime. On Saturday, they were up 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 and allowed New Jersey to get within one goal of tying the game three different times in the third period.
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Brandon Hagel, who scored a pair of goals on Saturday, said there’s a different mindset from earlier in the season, when the Lightning would allow misfortune to snowball.
“We would sit back and kind of get a little nervous,” Hagel said of previous months. “But when we get scored on (now), it just seems that the next line that goes out there kind of lifts the team up.”
On Saturday, it was Steven Stamkos who answered with a critical third-period goal after former Lightning star Ondrej Palat got New Jersey back in the game at 2-1. Later, Brayden Point answered a Devils score with an unassisted goal.
“We’ve got to do a better job of eliminating those Grade A chances that we gave away, but at the same time I like how we responded after they scored,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who had three assists and reached 700 points for his career. “We came back and scored almost right away twice, so that’s good. That’s good.”
So is there any chance the NHL can reconsider this whole All-Star break business?
Because, just when the Lightning have found their groove and worked themselves back into playoff contention, they begin an ill-timed 10-day break.
“Jersey is kind of in the same spot we’re at. We’re all battling to get ourselves in (the postseason),” Cooper said before the game. “You look at games like New Jersey, Philly, Detroit, all games that we’ve played here in the last few weeks. What’s the cliché, those are four-point games? That’s what they are, and so these are big ones for us.”
No doubt about it, that was a big win on Saturday night. Just like the half-dozen others in the past two weeks.
They look much better. More disciplined. Certainly, more consistent.
But does that mean the Lightning are back?
We’ve got 32 games to find out.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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