BRANDON — The All-Star break offers a welcome respite from the grind of the NHL schedule. But for a Lightning team that was playing its best hockey in the weeks beforehand, the timing is somewhat unfortunate.
The Lightning won eight of their final nine games before the break and put themselves in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race after spending most of the season on the fringe following a sluggish start.
“It was tough for us, because we were on a bit of a roll,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “But for me, it doesn’t matter. When you get a break like that, and especially to see a lot of the injured guys on the ice and looking like they’re ready to go, it’s just kind of a rejuvenation.
“And to think, with 32 games left we’ve put ourselves in a position that we wanted to be all year long. And now the big message was making sure that we don’t find ourselves on the outside looking in.”
The Lightning entered Tuesday’s games third in the Atlantic Division with 59 points, leading the conference’s two wild-card teams — Toronto and Detroit — by a point and five ahead of the next team in the playoff chase, the Islanders. Three teams — Pittsburgh, New Jersey and Washington — sit eight points back, so Tampa Bay has separated itself from what had been an extremely close pack just a month ago.
“Our confidence is very high, but at the same time we can’t bank on that, too,” said defenseman Victor Hedman. “So we have to find a way to get back in the game action right away and take off where we left off and just make sure that we’re ready to go, because this doesn’t mean anything if we don’t go out there and execute in the future here. So, we’re super excited to get on the road right away, just get to work.”
The Lightning resume play with back-to-back games in New York, Wednesday against the Rangers and Thursday against the Islanders. Their four-game road trip continues Saturday in Columbus and Tuesday in Boston.
Tampa Bay has played better on the road of late, taking two of three on its most recent trip. But that was the first trip this season of two games or more on which the Lightning won more games than they lost. They are 10-13-2 away from Amalie Arena, their 22 road points ranking 24th in the league.
Last season, Tampa Bay exited the break with a 7-1 clunker at Florida and lost 10 of their first 15 games. Though they sit in the same place in the standings as this time last year, they have a smaller lead over the two wild-card teams and can’t afford a similarly slow restart.
The good news is the time off allowed injured players extra time to get healthy. Top defensemen Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are expected to be back against the Rangers Forward Tanner Jeannot could follow soon after, the team optimistic he could return from injury at some point during the trip.
Both the Rangers and Islanders will already have played games before the Lightning visit. Several Tampa Bay players skated on their own Sunday to get their legs back after not playing since Jan. 27. Monday’s first official full-group practice was high-paced and intense and included a mini-scrimmage to simulate game action.
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“That’s what you try to get in these practices, replicate some scrimmages, some power plays, some situational work,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “You know there’s going to be a little rust, for sure, but you just try to minimize that. ... We’ll get (the Rangers’) second game. But it is what it is, and we’ve got to come out and play well. This is a big, big trip for us. We’ve been on a roll here. Let’s try to keep it going.”
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