Six-game homestand wasn’t perfect, but Lightning make statement

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop made 30 saves and improved to 7-1 in his career against the Red Wings in a 3-1 victory on March 20.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — After the final horn sounded Thursday, there was no electricity buzzing throughout the stands, no celebration near the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goal to dust off another opponent and send them on their way. Instead, a dizzying and dramatic six-game homestand ended like it began, with a loss, but a revealing 12-day marathon at Amalie Arena should be recalled for more than the two defeats.

Between losses to the Winnipeg Jets on March 14 and the Nashville Predators on Thursday, the Lightning beat an old tormentor for the fourth time this season (Montreal Canadiens) and continued their mastery of a possible Eastern Conference quarterfinals foe (Detroit Red Wings), they snapped a 10-game losing streak to an opponent who served as their poltergeist for three years (Boston Bruins) and stole two points from a desperate in-state rival on the edge of the playoff picture (Florida Panthers).

Sure, the front and back covers of this homestand had the appearance of a used college textbook: Beat up and worn. But the story inside, with those four victories over Eastern Conference playoff dreamers, is one heckuva tale.

"I thought it was a great homestand," goaltender Ben Bishop said, after Nashville’s 3-2 victory Thursday. "Now we’ve got to go do it on the road."

The temptation after a long homestand is to focus too much on the parting taste, not the full flavor of the entire experience. Yes, there were some bad moments along the way — the lax effort against Winnipeg (outshot 29-16), the three goals allowed in the second period against Florida and a weak power-play attack against Nashville that ticked off center Steven Stamkos afterward — but the Lightning should be pleased about what was done before jetting north to begin a five-game road trip that will reveal more.

They kept pace with Montreal in the Atlantic Division, ending Thursday with 99 points, just one behind the Canadiens.

They exerted their will on Detroit, with Bishop making 30 saves and improving to 7-1 in his career against the Red Wings.

They paddled Boston after a long history of pain, with Stamkos serving as an emotional firecracker by tangling with Brad Marchand in the first period, the whole tussle bringing the captain’s NHL fight total to a grand amount of two.

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They spun magic against a feisty Florida bunch, with the help of third-period scores by Nikita Kucherov and Ryan Callahan that turned a sloppy one-goal deficit in the second period into a memory to keep.

"Pretty good," Lightning center Brian Boyle said, sizing up the past six games.

"We’ve got some hockey left. We’ve got some work to do before we can clinch a playoff spot and look past the task at hand."

The whole playoff-clinching thing will come soon. In fact, thanks to the Anaheim Ducks surging late to beat Boston in overtime Thursday, Tampa Bay could have punched its ticket to Lord Stanley’s dance with a victory over Nashville. But the Predators handed the Lightning their eighth home loss this season after Pekka Rinne made 28 saves, some of the human pretzel variety.

Truthfully, the Lightning played better in defeat Thursday than they did in snatching victory against the Panthers on Tuesday. Sometimes, those are the breaks.

Still, this homestand, with contender after contender on the slate, could have served as a giant pothole in Tampa Bay’s drive toward the postseason. Instead, the Lightning cruised when it counted most.

This homestand, which became a giant X-ray to reveal what’s inside a young-and-evolving team, could have served as a stiff blow to the gut. Instead, the Lightning survived by delivering swings of their own, and so many things — clinching a playoff berth for the second consecutive season, possibly claiming the Atlantic Division title, a real chance to win the Presidents’ Trophy — stand before them glistening in the distance.

"We want to win every game," a frustrated Stamkos said late Thursday. "And we gave ourselves a chance. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. We played a good team tonight, and I thought we were the better team. That goalie made some big saves."

A 4-2 homestand included a bit of everything: Passion and emotion, a few letdown moments and some losses. But after the dust settled, what came between the bookends mattered most.

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