Lightning impressive vs. beasts of East, but must do same on the road

TAMPA, Fla. — The team with fresh questions entered Amalie Arena in need of a wicked knockout punch to calm critics, spark momentum and prove something inside its own dressing room.

The Tampa Bay Lightning skated onto the ice early Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings, the class of the Atlantic Division, with plenty of that familiar red and those familiar chants rooted in that familiar history ringing above in Amalie Arena’s stands.

But by the end of the evening, after a 5-1 Lightning romp, after all that red and all those chants were chased, only one team had played with the anger worthy of that color.

"We took a step back in Carolina," said Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, referring to a concerning loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday. "So to not take another back, just to reassure where we stand and (that) we know how we can play, I think it was a good game for us to kind of let us know how we can play against good teams."

Victory music played in the Lightning’s dressing room following their most impressive triumph in some time, given the circumstances and the buzz that came paired with the matchup. Positive words were spoken following their spanking of Detroit goaltender Petr Mrazek, who entered with an imposing 10-3-1 record and 2.55 goals-against average. Doubts were chased — at least for a short while — with this answer following a flat effort to begin the post-All-Star break schedule at PNC Arena against one of the Eastern Conference’s worst teams.

This night was different. The Lightning threw aside the red flags that followed them from Raleigh, North Carolina, and turned a rout of a legit Eastern Conference threat into a red-letter day.

Cedric Paquette, the unexpected star, charged hard with three goals after entering with just six in 39 games. Bishop, the trusted presence in net, made key saves early as part of his 27 overall to stonewall Detroit and set an appropriate tone. Jon Cooper, the pleased coach, captured the night’s meaning well after his team set a franchise mark with its ninth consecutive home victory.

"It’s good to go against somebody that you’re trying to fight for your playoff lives with," Cooper said. "So it’s more important that we got those points. But the crowd energizes us. It’s a lot of fun to play here."

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Fun, indeed. Now the trick is bottling that bolt of energy to be uncorked at any time.

Look, it’s obvious the Lightning are a different team at home. Their 20-4-1 record at Amalie Arena should send shivers down any foe, because the Lightning have proven that their ice is their space, their territory, their place to shine.

That’s why the rout of the mighty Red Wings, who have just 12 regulation losses, was more predictable than one might think. The Lightning followed a clunker at Carolina with a sterling response at home, one that served as an uppercut to the chin that decked Detroit by the second period’s end. Good teams fight back after being smacked in the stomach.

But can the momentum extend beyond Tampa Bay’s friendly confines?

A "yes" to the question would make the Lightning dangerous. They’re a so-so 11-11-3 on the road, and four teams in the Atlantic Division alone have fewer road losses in regulation. When asked after Thursday’s morning skate if prepping for Detroit feels different than getting up for Carolina, Bishop said, "Absolutely," which is understood, but it’s also indicative of a larger problem.

The Lightning, at times, play down to their competition. They mostly have no problem showing, especially at home, against the likes of Detroit, the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers. The beasts of the East. But when it comes to less sexy opponents? Well, anything is possible.

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"Some teams are going to have bad games like we did in Carolina," Lightning winger Jonathan Drouin said, referring to Detroit. "I don’t think it was their best game for them. I think we just played really hard and pushed the pace."

Tampa Bay pushed, all right, enough so that it shoved the Red Wings off a cliff early to make the third period a snoozer. It’s enticing to watch such dominance and aggression against one of the Eastern Conference’s best and wonder what could be.

So this will be a theme to watch in the coming months: Can the Lightning treat most opponents like a Detroit, even if the atmosphere includes less juice, even if they’re away from home? Can they bring their "A" game against "C" opponents? Can they assert their will?

Late Thursday night, the questions were drowned in the upbeat music and in the words that were spoken throughout their dressing room after an impressive victory. Still, what comes after the noise quiets will be telling.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.