GLENDALE, Ariz. — If there ever were a trap game for the NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, the Thursday contest against the Arizona Coyotes is it.
The Lightning (22-6-2) have won five consecutive games and six of their last seven. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing at a Vezina Trophy level, with a 20-4-1 record and a 2.15 goals-against average. Center Steven Stamkos and right winger Nikita Kucherov share the league lead with 42 points apiece, while Kucherov and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin each have an NHL-most 21 goals.
Already, the Lightning are looking like a team that could go far in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
By contrast, the Coyotes are a team that has gone far — very far — this season but with not much to show for it.
Owners of the NHL’s worst record, the Coyotes (7-21-5) already have traveled a remarkable 22,333 miles, or more than some Eastern Conference teams will all season. Their 21 road games played in the first 33 games of the season are the most in NHL history, according to their research, and they have only four wins outside of Arizona.
They have lost their past four games overall and seven of their last eight, and are only 3-8-1 at Gila River Arena, where — finally — they play nine of their next 11 games.
“We want to be known as a tough team to beat at home,” Arizona coach Rick Tocchet said. “I’m not sure they’ve created that at home yet. Maybe it’s because we’ve played all those road games.”
Still, the last time the Coyotes played at home, under similar circumstances off a difficult road trip, they beat up on the New Jersey Devils 5-0 on Dec. 2, easily their best game of the season.
Defenseman Alex Goligoski said the Coyotes feel energized going into the Lightning game because they finally can look forward to being at home for an extended stretch. Their next road game isn’t until Dec. 27.
“We’re getting some missed practice time and a (regular) schedule and some time at home,” Goligoski said. “I’m excited to see what the team can do when we’re fresh and focused.”
They showed that Dec. 2, only to be forced to go back on the road yet again for four more games — and four more losses (0-3-1).
Arizona hopes to get more production from rookie left winger Clayton Keller, who has a team-leading 11 goals but hasn’t scored one since Nov. 2. At least the Coyotes got back goalie Antti Raanta (4-6-2) after his third injury this season. He stopped 33 shots in a 1-0 loss at Columbus on Saturday before Scott Wedgewood was back between the pipes Sunday for a 3-1 loss at Chicago.
If the Coyotes are to salvage their season in any way, they know they must establish the home-ice advantage they have yet to achieve this season. And they must end their habit of giving away games in the final few minutes.
“A lot of games this year, we’ve been tied up in the third period or up in the third period with 10 minutes to go,” Tocchet said, “and for the most part we’ve been on the wrong side. It’s a major thing that’s really hurt our team.”
Even with the Coyotes’ struggles, Tampa Bay center Tyler Johnson said the Lightning need to produce an improved performance against the Coyotes than they had during a 3-0 win over the Western Conference-leading Blues in St. Louis on Tuesday night.
“We need to be better than we were the last game, and keep getting better,” Johnson said. “It’s nice where we are in the standings, but we know teams are coming for us. We want to do a good job and stay there (in the standings).”
Stamkos has two goals and four points in his past four games against Arizona, which swept the two-game series from Tampa Bay last season. Kucherov has five goals in his past five games against the Coyotes.
Vasilevskiy, who made 32 saves in the win against the Blues for his third shutout of the season, is 8-0-0 against the Western Conference this season.