One or two, all points important to Lightning during final push
TAMPA, Fla. — Some points are earned without sweat in routs that are forgotten as fast as a breath lost in the wind. Others are claimed after crawling through the mud of a three-hour test of mental and physical strength. No matter in what quantity they come, one or two, they draw postseason dreams closer. No matter how they arrive, through ease or angst, they add to a season’s legacy.
"We showed some resilience coming back and tying that game up," Tampa Bay Lightning winger Ryan Callahan said, after his team’s 4-3 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators. "We had a chance on the power play in overtime, too, to win it. But we got ourselves into that trouble, having the first half that we did."
Callahan offered that assessment as he slouched at his stall deep in Tampa Bay Times Forum on Monday. There was a clear feeling of, "Yes … but," in all the postgame analysis from Lightning players and their coach, Jon Cooper, after they claimed a point in their ninth consecutive game.
Yes, Tampa Bay lost, its second consecutive after five straight victories from March 13-March 20, but its point total jumped from 86 to 87 during these oh-so important closing weeks.
Yes, Tampa Bay lost, its third consecutive in a shootout dating back to March 8, but it remains in comfortable position to earn its first playoff berth since the 2010-2011 season, now tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the Eastern Conference’s third seed.
Yes, Tampa Bay lost, never good when the most greedy in a dressing room want twice the reward this time of year, but chunking points however they come is the most key part in preserving a chance to play beyond April 13.
"Naturally, we’d love to have two in each one of these," Cooper said. "But I think I say this every time I come up here — it’s one more point than we had 2 1/2 hours ago."
That’s the kicker about the schedule in late March for contenders. It’s a test of stamina, willpower and endurance, because so many factors can shake the focus of a postseason dreamer sprinting for the regular season’s finish line: Desperate opponents, pressure of a tight race, pure fatigue.
The Lightning’s latest obstacle became option No. 1, the Senators a limping Atlantic Division rival that had lost six consecutive games and 10 of 12 since Feb. 8.
Instead, Ottawa played with attitude Monday in racing to a 1-0 lead, then a 2-1 edge, then a 3-1 advantage before goals from defenseman Victor Hedman (in the second period) and center Steven Stamkos (in the third) were enough to force overtime. This was a different team.
"I guess (it’s) nine in a row with points," Stamkos said, disappointed. "They’re not easy to come by this time of year, so we’ll take as many as we can get."
"We put ourselves in a hole, but we found a way to climb back and get the one. We’ll take the positive. But I think at this time of year, we can’t afford to start the game two periods in."
No they can’t, but when you’re on a roll, the points tend to pile up like poker chips however they come. Lately, Stamkos and center Valtteri Filppula have served as the engines behind this push: Stamkos’ goal Monday was his seventh in seven games, and with an assist on Hedman’s second-period goal, Filppula extended his scoring streak to nine games.
Funny thing, though. If you ask the men in blue why their point streak has lived, none of them can pinpoint a specific reason. Comfort, certainly. But this sprint runs deeper, and the variety makes them dangerous in these late March hours and into April.
"I think if we knew," defenseman Michael Kostka said with a laugh, "I think we’d be able to bottle that and bring that with us. I think you try to stay consistent with what you’re doing system-wise."
"I don’t know what’s the reason," defenseman Sami Salo said. "Obviously, some guys had a long Olympic break, so it takes them a little while to get going. … It’s tough to pinpoint why it started."
"I think it’s more than one thing," Filppula said. "The team is playing well now. I feel like we have good linemates that are playing really well. So that’s a big help. When you find the chemistry, I think that’s the main thing."
Tampa Bay’s emerging chemistry is credit to a stew of factors: Strong goaltending (Ben Bishop is tied for second in the league with 34 victories), better-than-expected rookie play (center Tyler Johnson entered Monday with five goals and four assists throughout his past 10 games; winger Ondrej Palat began the night leading all rookies in scoring since Jan. 1 with 34 points), the power-play production has picked up (Tampa Bay is 9-for-29 in its last seven games, including 2-for-9 on Monday).
Stars are simple to find. Contributors are constant. The helping hands are many.
"I think that’s not the way we played of late," Hedman said in a flat tone Monday, echoing the night’s theme. "I was obviously disappointed that we came out like we did. But I thought we battled back."
Yes … but. A loss … yet another point arrives, for the ninth consecutive game, for a game in which the Lightning were far from their best.
This deep in the season, that’s good enough. With this playoff cushion, the Lightning will take them however they come, however possible.