TAMPA, FL. – The Lightning went nearly two weeks between home games before hosting the Devils on Thursday night.
Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, and the rest of the guys in blue made sure the faithful went home feeling that it was worth the wait. A 3-2 win likely did just that.
The victory came in the front end of a three-game homestand that continues Saturday evening against Vegas. The Lightning are 11-1-1 in their last 13 games at Amalie Arena, where they last played January 15 in a win over Dallas.
Cirelli, whose diligence on the penalty kill resulted in a penalty shot (save by Jon Gillies) while killing a four-minute power play in the middle period, put home the game-winner at 11:55 of the third.
During the aforementioned four-minute kill, and 26 seconds after Cirelli’s penalty shot, Mathieu Joseph’s second shorthanded goal of the season gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead. The goal was a thing of beauty. Joseph intercepted a Jesper Bratt pass at the defensive blue line, triggered an odd-man break and buried his own rebound.
“I feel like we want to be aggressive at the blue line and create turnovers here and there,” said Joseph. “In general, I am trying to limit their time and space.”
He did just that and then some. Sticking to the game plan on the penalty kill not only makes life easier, but can create opportunities such as those by Cirelli and Joseph.
“We are trying to stay structured out there, pressure (the opposing power play) and give them as less time and space as possible,” said Joseph, who had four shots on goal, four hits and a pair of takeaways, and whose game seems to get better by the week.
Fans best enjoy the next two games because, after the homestand concludes Tuesday night against San Jose, the Lightning will not play at Amalie again until February 22 against Edmonton. That will be the second and final home game of a month in which the Lightning play only six games.
The quirky schedule is a byproduct of next weekend’s all-star break and what was going to be a two-week hiatus for the Winter Olympics. With NHL players not participating in Beijing, the break will be used to make up games that were postponed due to the virus.
Hence, the Lightning will play at Colorado on the 10th, at Arizona on the 11th, and at New Jersey on the 15th. They conclude the month with an outdoor game in Nashville on the 26th.
“It is a good thing for the whole team to take a break and heal up a little bit because the last two months of the season will be crazy with so many games,” said Ondrej Palat, who returned Thursday night (assisted on Cirelli’s game-winner) from a lower-body injury that kept him out of the lineup for five games, earlier this week. “We will need everybody to be in top shape for those two months.”
Indeed, the schedule is rather cluttered in March, which has the Lightning playing eight games in the month’s first 13 days.
“Things that you cannot control, you don’t need worry about, especially the schedule,” said Alex Killorn, whose first-period goal Thursday tied the game at one.
The Lightning opened the homestand without the services of Nikita Kucherov, Erik Cernak, and Zach Bogosian. Kucherov is in Covid protocol and will miss Saturday night’s game against the Golden Knights. He had 13 points (five goals) in eight games since returning from a lower-body injury that cost him 32 games.
Coach Jon Cooper said the injured Cernak and Bogosian likely will not be available during the homestand. The latter is expected to be out another week or two while the timetable of the former seems less certain.
While they continue to go at it without key players and will have to soon deal with an odd schedule, the Lightning, as Killorn said, should not place any focus on the things they cannot control. Rather, focus on tending to the details when the puck drops. They did just that Thursday night after four days off upon returning from a three-game California trip that netted four points.
“It is tough to get back (from such a trip) and I have to give the guys credit for coming back and grinding it out,” said Cooper, of the lunch pail-type win over New Jersey.