Lightning in ‘Must-Win’ Territory

The Tampa Bay Lightning enter Friday’s contests against the Minnesota Wild just six points behind the Boston Bruins for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Victor Hedman
Victor Hedman (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s not exactly the position the Lightning expected to be in with just 28 games left to play in the regular season — one that allows for little to no margin for error moving forward. Friday’s matchup gives the Lightning the chance to see how they measure up against a Wild team that’s won seven of their past 10 games and whose 76 points is second-most in the league. In December, they put together a relatively quiet 12-game win streak — they are that good.

Jonathan Drouin (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning are coming off the heels of a 5-0 victory over the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, which marked the first time they’ve won back-to-back games since Dec. 22. Against the Kings, they thrived off a 19-save first period by goaltender Ben Bishop and limited the opposition to just nine shots in the final two periods while playing a more open game offensively than they have throughout most of the season.

“We need consecutive wins,” Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin said after Tuesday’s victory. “When you win one lose one, win one lose one, you don’t really get points out of that. It’s two (wins), we want to make it three and four on the road .. we need wins in a row. Hopefully we get on a little roll here.”

The Time is Now

While the season has been a series of tests — from injuries to issues with consistency on both sides of the puck at times — the Lightning will face one of their biggest challenges over the next two days. After playing the Wild on Friday evening, they board a plane to Winnipeg to face the Jets less than 24 hours later.

Jon Cooper
Jon Cooper (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

While there’s been speculation about the future of the team’s roster past this season with the trade deadline pending on March 1 and the NHL Expansion Draft set to take place in June, there is one certainty as they head into Saint Paul: it’s one game at a time and that time, is now.

In all reality the time has been now for weeks — but push has officially come to shove for the purposes of this season.

Anyone that’s looked at the standings knows that it’s more than an uphill battle to make the playoffs at this point — the players and coaching staff certainly know this. While the odds are stacked against the team in their quest for a fourth-straight playoff berth, it’s not entirely impossible, however.

“We’ve got no choice but to have it go that way,” head coach Jon Cooper said after Tuesday’s game, when asked about the need for the team to go on a roll after two straight wins on home ice. “What’s the old cliche at this point? Every game is a playoff game … we’ve just got to keep building each game and I truly believe we have and I truly believe that now, guys are getting rewarded for it.”

The Immediate Future

The Lightning are expected to turn to Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes against the Wild — the 22-year-old Russian goaltender’s first start since a 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 2. It will be a big test for the third-year NHL netminder as he will be up against the league’s fourth-ranked offense, as the Wild are averaging 3.3 goals for per game. The Lightning will be without Tyler Johnson but Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn are probable.

Friday’s contests also marks the NHL record-setting 2,165th game coached by associate coach Rick Bowness — who passes Scotty Bowman for the most all-time — adding a sentimental element to a must-win contest.

Nikita Kucherov (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

From Minnesota, the Lightning will travel to Winnipeg to play a Jets team that has lost their last two contests, but will also be playing a back-to-back, as they face the Chicago Blackhawks on the road on Friday. The Jets tallied six goals en route to a 6-4 win against the Lightning in the only matchup between the two clubs so far this season on Jan. 3. While they sit a disappointing fifth in the Central Division, they have no shortage of offensive weapons and outplayed the Lightning during that game.

The Lightning will begin their “bye” week Feb. 12 through Feb. 17 before picking up again with road matchups against the Dallas Stars (Feb. 18) and Colorado Avalanche (Feb. 19) and then playing three home games before the March 1 trade deadline.

Steve Yzerman
Steve Yzerman (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite the team’s playoff uncertainty at this time, it will be business as usual for general manager Steve Yzerman. He will not let the short-term goal of a playoff berth outweigh pulling the trigger on moves that he believes serve the team’s long-term goals, if the opportunity presents itself in the form of a trade.

While the future of the club is unknown and the roster will certainly look a little different, one way or another, come next season, the Lightning have the opportunity to make the most of the current situation by putting together a string of wins (right) now.