Lightning well-positioned entering All-Star break, but can’t rest on laurels
TAMPA, Fla. — So much ground has been covered, but they know an urgent sprint awaits ahead.
So much good has been accomplished, but they know they have the potential to become more, with "great" their goal the rest of the way.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have reached the All-Star break with so many checkboxes filled in: Leading the Eastern Conference with 64 points, owning an NHL-best 19 home victories, enjoying standout contributions from faces young and old.
And they know none of it matters, none of it at all, if they don’t keep the momentum rolling in the regular season’s final months.
"When we come back, we’ll expect the same high level, and that’s something that we want to make sure that we don’t lose," said center Brian Boyle, after the Lightning swept aside the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 on Tuesday at Amalie Arena. "I’m confident that we won’t. We have the guys in here with the character, and the coaching staff will demand it."
There’s no doubt that the demands will be high, and given how Tampa Bay ended the pre-All-Star break schedule by winning three consecutive games and six of its last eight, we’re long past the point of wondering if the Lightning have staying power. Mostly, they’ve been beasts with a bolt through 48 contests, and barring a wild collapse, they should make clinching home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs their goal rather than merely trying to earn a second consecutive postseason trip for the first time since appearing in the dance for four straight years from 2003 to 2007.
"It’s kind of that point in the year where, when you come back from (the All-Star break), things tighten up," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "It’s the last half of the year, or just over that. The game changes a bit, so it’s nice to kind of get away and do your thing and come back and know what you have to look forward to."
Oh, there’s plenty to anticipate.
Remember all the preseason questions? Remember when it was unknown if the Lightning could handle the hype, the expectations, the fact that they would become more of the hunted after a surprise run to 101 points in Jon Cooper’s first full campaign as an NHL coach?
Of course. But Tampa Bay dashed early doubts long ago.
Now those questions should be replaced by a fresh batch more appropriate for the moment: Can the Lightning finish the job? Can they not only close atop the Atlantic Division but the entire Eastern Conference? Can they overcome physical threats (ahem, Boston) and form their own mettle to mash obstacles placed in their way?
"We have 64 points, we’ve got 30 wins prior to the All-Star break," Cooper said. "If you’re judging by that, you’d have to give ourselves a pretty high grade. … We’ve got to keep munching points, because we’re going to need them at some point. I’m really happy with what the guys have done so far."
But Cooper knows the work is far from over. He fell short of giving the Lightning a letter grade when asked Tuesday to assess their pre-All-Star break play — "Think of a high one," he said — but an incomplete mark would do fine when considering their season in its entirety. Discovery remains.
Revealing tests await in their effort to ace the schedule. There’s the Jan. 29 matchup at Amalie Arena against the Detroit Red Wings, who trail Tampa Bay by one point in the Atlantic Division. There’s the five-game West Coast swing from Feb. 15-22. There are the nine home games in March, which should serve as a springboard into April if the Lightning can replicate their early success on familiar ice.
There are concerns as well. How will young defensemen play in place of the injured Radko Gudas and Matt Carle? Will Ben Bishop stay healthy? Will the Lightning, known as a finesse team to some, push back against the NHL’s largest bullies?
For now, they’re good. For now, they’re solid.
But "good" and "solid" never delivered any tickertape parades. Tampa Bay’s challenge is graduating to "great," that five-letter word that teases and tempts at the same time, that five-letter word that’s like gold if discovered.
"I feel like we’ve been playing fairly well the whole year," center Valtteri Filppula said. "I think there are always going to be some games that you’re not happy with, but I feel like we should feel pretty confident going in and … keep going when we come back."
They’ve asserted themselves as a contender. They’ve chased away doubts about their ability to handle the pressure that comes with lofty hopes. They’ve presented themselves as fast and exciting and flawed, yes, but also promising.
There’s so much potential, but there’s so much more yet to do and gain.