Hard to imagine that with the NHL season just past five games for the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, that their coach, Jon Cooper would call a short four game road trip both “a real test for us” as well as “the most important road trip of the season”.
Yet, when the Lightning left for Nashville one week ago to begin this critically important four game road trip through the Central Division of the NHL, there was trepidation among the Lightning fan base. They were going to face half of the playoff teams from the Western Conference last season as well as the reigning Stanley Cup champs (Chicago) and the defending Central Division champs (St. Louis).
Forgive those of us who chalked up Cooper’s comments to hyperbole. It certainly would be a measuring stick upon which we could grade the team ten games into the new season. Perhaps, Cooper is right on the money with his comments and thus far three games into this “road test”, most observers would say the team has passed the muster. Let’s recap this western swing thus far:
In the first of the four games, the Lightning lost in a shootout to Nashville by a score of five to four. On three separate occasions in this game, the Lighting had a one goal lead that they couldn’t hold. Still, getting a point isn’t the worse outcome on the road against a very tough Predator team.
The next game was in Winnipeg last Friday night. Another big, physical bruising type of team that will knock the snot out of you. This game also was tied after regulation but a scant thirty six seconds into the 3 on 3 overtime period, captain Steven Stamkos lifted a sweet saucer pass to Ondrej Palat for the game winner. The trip is now half done and the Lighting have earned three points in two games.
Now comes the real test. Not only a back to back game on Saturday night. Not only a Stanley Cup final rematch against the Chicago Blackhawks. Not only to play in front of 20,000 rabid Blakchawk fans but that morning you recall young Kristers Gudlevskis from the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League to play between the pipes. No big deal. Just another game, Rook.
What does Gudlevskis do against the defending NHL champs? He stops the first 31 shots he faces against Chicago. Unfortunately, he let one in on the 32nd shot and that came in the first minute of overtime and the Blackhawks beat the Lighting one to nothing. On the bright side, the Lightning earned another point on this trip through hell. Four points in three games. The down side is that somehow the team has to find a way to win these OT games on the road. Playoff teams do that.
As they await their Tuesday night matchup with the St. Louis Blues, the Lighting have to take some solace in the fact that while they are 1-0-2 on this trip, they have a great opportunity with a victory in against the Blues, to come home with six points in four games in this self-proclaimed big test.
After the St. Louis game tomorrow, the Lightning will have completed only ten games into this brand new season. This is not a large sampling yet of just how this team will fare the rest of the way in the regular season let alone the playoffs. But this short and critical road test for the boys from Tampa is an indication that regardless the opponent, regardless the venue and regardless of who is in the lineup and who is not, the 2015-16 version of the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to leave it out on the ice every single game.
To have played three straight overtime games and come away with four points is admirable. To accomplish that against four playoff teams from last season is noteworthy. Ultimately, a road trip during the first month of the season in the scheme of things, doesn’t matter much come April.
But in this instance, I trust Cooper’s instinct. I believe that this four game trip against the heart of the Central Division is a measuring stick by which the brain trust of the Lightning organization can get a good read on their players.
It won’t solidify a playoff spot if the team beats the Blues to close out this trip. Conversely, it won’t be the end of the world if the Lightning lose this game in St. Louis on Tuesday.
It will however, mean something for some time down the road. It is a test for the mettle of this young Lightning team. To go in to four very hostile arenas and take the home teams to overtime says quite a lot about your team.
The success of this trip is also magnified because of the record setting pace set by their Atlantic Division rival, Montreal Canadiens. The Habs have not lost a game through their first nine. The Lightning are working their rear ends off to keep close to Montreal.
As this road trip ends, the Lightning close out the first month of the season with two games at home against the Colorado Avalanche and the Boston Bruins.
So, regardless of the outcome in St, Louis, the team has earned at least a B grade on this trip. A win against the Blues pushes that grade to at least an A minus. Not bad for an early season road trip that could have easily been a road hazard. Now, it is on to Game 11 of the regular season and then to November.