Tampa Bay is on the verge of its first four-game winning streak of the season, and it’s probably no coincidence that its top forward is breaking out.
Steven Stamkos has overcome a relatively slow start and most recently paced an impressive road trip, but the Lightning return to Tampa for much of the next five weeks hoping to recapture last season’s home-ice magic.
That begins with Friday night’s visit from the Pittsburgh Penguins, whose own four-game road trip isn’t going quite as well.
The Lightning (22-17-4) are starting a span of 11 of 14 in Tampa with a four-game homestand, and last season’s league-best 32-8-1 home record is already out of reach. They’re 10-8-2 without consecutive home wins since a three-game streak from Nov. 19-25, going 4-4-1 since.
But home form might not be concerning them too much after winning their last three games, including Tuesday’s 4-0 victory in Colorado.
"We played well all the way around," coach Jon Cooper told the team’s official website. "We competed really hard, we battled for pucks, we shot pucks even though it didn’t look like it. When we’re battling, our structure falls into place. When you’re executing and you’re going tape-to-tape, you can do some pretty good things.
"As this road trip has gone on, we’ve gotten better and better. It’s funny how this trip goes. You lose the first one, you’re down 2-0 after two (periods) in one game and you come out with three straight wins."
Stamkos scored twice against the Avalanche, had four goals on the road trip and has nine goals in his last 11 games after going his previous 10 without scoring. The 43-goal scorer from 2014-15 had 11 through his first 32 games.
"He’s our leader and he’s starting to heat up, and we may get four a night (from him)," Cooper said.
Pittsburgh held Stamkos without a point last season to win two of three as part of an 11-1-0 run in the series, but the loss was the only meeting in Tampa with the Lightning getting a hat trick from Tyler Johnson.
The Penguins (20-16-6) are concluding a four-game road trip hoping for a split after Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Carolina. After scoring 10 goals in two games, they’ve regressed into old habits with eight over a 1-1-2 stretch. That changed some after falling behind 2-0 midway through the second period.
"It’s just desperation," Sidney Crosby said. "We saw the position we were in (and) just got a little bit more desperate. That’s how we need to play from the puck drop. … Being put in that situation was a big part of that."
Even if the team remains inconsistent, some individuals have come around. Crosby assisted on both goals and has 14 points in his last 11 games after managing 19 through 30 contests, and Kris Letang scored for the fourth time in his last six after managing one through his first 27.
Crosby had four assists in the last meeting with the Lightning – a 6-3 Penguins home win on Jan. 2, 2015 – and the center has seven goals and 12 assists in his last seven games against the Lightning. Evgeni Malkin has 13 goals and 13 assists on an 11-game point streak in the series.
They’ll likely be firing on Ben Bishop, who is coming off his second shutout of the season and is 10-6-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average and .932 save percentage dating to the first on Nov. 21. Against Pittsburgh, though, he’s 0-2-0 with a 4.93 GAA and .856 save percentage in five career games.
Counterpart Marc-Andre Fleury is 7-0-0 in his last eight starts against the Lightning.