Scheduling and Experience Will Guide Lightning to Playoffs

It wasn’t a strong start for the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night at Amalie Arena. Down 4-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks by the middle of the second period, it looked as if the Lightning would lose ground in the wild card race and prove they do not belong on the same ice as the NHL elite.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

But the three-goal deficit was erased in the span of five minutes in the second and the Lightning (37-29-9) came away with a 5-4 victory on a Yanni Gourde overtime goal. The win moved the Lightning just one point behind the Boston Bruins for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

The victory against the Blackhawks showed flashes of what everyone expected the Lightning to be capable of offensively and that getting down early doesn’t faze them. It was a good sign for head coach Jon Cooper but, without a playoff appearance, it is just another victory.

Cooper’s squad helped themselves with the victory Monday night but they will need some help along the way to secure a postseason berth. They have the New York Islanders kicking at their heels and the Carolina Hurricanes have played their way back into the wild card discussion with points in 11 straight games.

Each game is important and the Lightning hold their destiny in their gloves, but experience in high-pressure games, plus a decent schedule down the stretch, will help.

A Capable Schedule

The last day of the 2016-17 regular season is Apr. 9 and the fate of the Lightning may be determined on that day. In the meanwhile, Cooper’s team has to do some work in the final seven games of the season, but the schedule is not all unfavorable.

Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

The positive is that they play four of their final seven games at Amalie Arena. The last game of the year, a game that may be the biggest of the season, is at home against Buffalo and everybody knows that place will be as wild as a Black Friday sale.

The rough part of the schedule is that the Bolts play four times against either playoff teams or playoff hopefuls (plus a Dallas Stars team that has been playing well of late).

A tilt with Boston at the TD Garden on Apr. 4 will be an important game for both sides and could be a huge factor in how the final playoff standings turn out.

In Hot Pursuit

No matter how the Lightning fare in their final seven games they’ll still have to deal with a few other teams that are playing with the same sense of urgency.

The good news for Tampa Bay is that Boston has the harshest schedule of any of the playoff pursuers. The Bruins play six of their final seven games at home, but four of those are against playoff teams, plus one against the Lightning. The Bruins will be playing high-intensity games the rest of the way, but getting back their number one goalie will ease that stress.

The Islanders don’t play as many playoff teams as the Bruins and Lightning, but they will be on the road five times in the last seven. Doug Weight’s squad hasn’t played well lately and a loss to Nashville Monday night put them behind the Lightning in the standings.

Tampa Bay is the hottest of the three teams vying for the final wild card spot but much can happen in the next 12 days. The Lightning has the benefit of a coach who has been here and has coached in pressurized games before. The Bruins and Islanders, having interim head coaches, have cooled off after hot starts under new bench bosses.

It will all come down to who has the most experience and wherewithal on the ice and behind the bench to claw their way to the postseason.

Should be fun.