Blues open two-game road trip against Eastern Conference-leading Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning feel as if they're getting a dose of playoff action in the midst of one of their toughest stretches of the season.
It likely won't get easier against a St. Louis Blues team that is excited to have a healthy forward rotation.
Before embarking on a five-game western trip, the Lightning host the Blues on Thursday night looking to avenge a recent defeat.
Tampa Bay (34-16-6) sits atop the Eastern Conference and is poised to stay there through a gauntlet of tough opponents and an extended period away from home.
The Lightning beat Pacific Division-leading Anaheim 5-3 on Sunday before Tuesday's 3-2 overtime loss at Nashville, which has the most points in the NHL. They'll face San Jose, Los Angeles and the Ducks -- all battling for postseason positioning -- before ending the trip with a back-to-back set against Arizona and Colorado.
"Playoffs are going to be those kind of teams every single night," said forward Brett Connolly, who scored after having two assists against the Ducks. "We're playing a lot of good teams this month, so we've got to be ready."
Tampa Bay is 7-2-2 in its last 11, and coach Jon Cooper knows every point is important when it comes to the playoff race. The Lightning lead Montreal by one point for the conference lead, but the Canadiens have three games in hand.
"(We fell behind) 2-0 in arguably the hardest place to play if you're going record-wise in the league, against the team with the most points in the league," Cooper said. "You eke a point out of it, so you can't be displeased with that."
The Lightning picked up a point in a 2-1 loss to the Blues on Feb. 3, but St. Louis (35-15-4) won for the fourth time in five meetings on Jaden Schwartz's overtime goal.
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Vladimir Tarasenko's goal with 3:10 left in regulation tied it. Neither he nor Schwartz had a point in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Arizona, but the return of Jori Lehtera to their line provided a boost in other ways.
Lehtera had missed the previous six games with a concussion, and coach Ken Hitchcock was happy to have him reunited with Tarasenko and Schwartz on the second line while assembling Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny and Patrik Berglund on another.
Jaskin scored the winner in the middle of the second period.
"I think everybody saw how much we missed Lehtera," said Hitchcock, who tied Dick Irvin for fourth on the all-time wins list with no. 692. "Lehtera is a big help to Tarasenko and Schwartz and secondly, Stastny's line's got great chemistry. They've got weight, they've got size."
The Blues, who avoided losing three straight in regulation for the first time this season, are four points behind the Predators in the Central Division.
"We've got to expect these types of games every night for the rest of the year," Hitchcock said.
Brian Elliott will be back in net after Jake Allen stopped 25 shots against the Coyotes. Elliott made 30 saves in the first meeting with the Lightning before allowing seven goals while dropping his next two starts.
Tampa Bay's Ben Bishop stopped 16 shots against his former team, beginning a three-start stretch during which he has just an .855 save percentage.