TAMPA, Fla. – The Lightning will have had an eight-day break by the time they get back in action in Sunrise against the Panthers on Monday.
While it is nice to have such a respite during a long and grueling season, it comes at a time when the Lightning were playing their best hockey. Following a five-game road trip, in which they won the first three games, they impressively defeated the Wild, Bruins, and Kings last week at Amalie Arena.
“You can probably count on one hand the odd-man rushes we gave up in all three games combined,” said coach Jon Cooper, following last Saturday’s 5-2 win over Los Angeles. “For us, when we are doing that, we are a much better team. When you are keeping teams below three goals, that’s what you want, and you give yourself a chance to win.”
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Cooper’s Bolts, who have won a team record 12 straight at home, have looked like a far more responsible team than earlier this season when careless play often crept into their game. Too many times, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was called upon to save the day.
Much of the improvement can be credited to a team that is simply becoming more comfortable with each other. After all, there are a few players who were not on the roster at this point last year, including impressive rookie defenseman Nick Perbix.
“There has been a lot of growth with our team,” said Cooper. “We are a much better team today than we were on day one. We are starting to find some consistency in our game, and that’s what you want as you are trying to make a push for the playoffs. We have put ourselves in a spot we want to be and we have to just keep moving forward.”
The Lightning, who are 32-15-1, third in the Atlantic Division and fifth in the Eastern Conference with a .677 points percentage, charge right back into action following all-star weekend. Beginning with the aforementioned game against the Panthers on Monday, they will play four games in six nights. Included are home games against the Sharks (Tuesday) and Avalanche (Thursday) next week.
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It is difficult to carry momentum over such a layoff, though Cooper hopes his troops return to the ice resembling the team that has won eight of its last 10.
“I have to hope they remember what got us here,” he said. “The big thing for us is we come out of this (break) playing four games in six nights after a long stretch off. You want them to enjoy this time off, rest, heal and have a little bit of fun and do things they can do to mentally have them recharged when they come back. It is a tough grind to come back and play that many games in such a short amount of time when you have a layoff like that.”
The layoff is not as lengthy for Nikita Kucherov and Vasilevskiy, both of whom are in Sunrise for all-star festivities. The skills competition gets underway at 7:00 on Friday night (ESPN), and the all-star game is 3:00 on Saturday (ABC).
Kucherov’s 53 assists lead the league, and he is third in scoring with 72 points. Vasy is 23-12-1 with a 2.51 goal-against average, and a .918 save percentage.
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