With the Christmas break coming to a close, the Tampa Bay Lightning are rolling right along. Despite showing a few cracks in their game last week, they have a fairly comfortable lead in both the Atlantic Division and overall NHL standings.
Their eight-game win streak grounded to a halt against the Winnipeg Jets, but they managed to pick up a point by going to overtime. That positive propelled them forward with three straight wins over the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers to send them to the holiday break on a league-high 12-game point streak.
Against the Jets, the Lightning squandered multiple leads thanks to poor defense. The last one proved costly, as an overtime goal by Mark Scheifele ended one of the longest winning streaks in team history. A few nights later, versus the Flames, a bad decision gave Johnny Gaudreau a breakaway to tie that game up late in regulation. Thankfully, backup netminder Louis Domingue was brilliant in overtime and the shootout, helping preserve two points for the team.
Speaking of which, the aforementioned Flames contest featured everything a hockey fan could want. It had end-to-end action and brilliant saves by both goaltenders, plus resiliency when facing a deficit. The momentum from that hard-fought victory gave them the confidence needed to end the road trip and head home on a positive note.
In this week’s edition of Lightning Weekly Flash, I’ll examine the blown leads and comebacks from the week that was. I’ll also dive into the big week by captain Steven Stamkos who has been on a tear in December, hitting yet another milestone on the recently completed Western Canadian trek.
Lightning’s Blown Leads Cause For Concern
For a team that’s made a living by coming back in games, the Lightning found out last week that comebacks aren’t always possible. Sometimes the opponent is too good, and the more life you give them, the more they will take points away from you.
The Lightning witnessed that first-hand at the beginning of their long trip as they blew three different leads before falling to the Jets late in overtime. That defeat stung and ended their winning streak at eight games, one shy of tying the franchise record of nine.
Another blown lead turned out better for the Lightning in the sense that they got two points, but showed they still have areas to clean up if they plan to go far come playoff time. Stamkos’ poor decision to attempt a cross-ice pass in the final minutes gave the Flames one point and an opportunity to grab two. Luckily, a refreshed Domingue stood tall long enough for the Lightning to grab the second point.
While those two games had the most impact on the Lightning as a whole, they also blew an early 1-0 lead against the Canucks before pulling away. The newly reconfigured fourth line, with Danick Martel in for the injured Ryan Callahan, made the difference. Cedric Paquette scored off a beautiful no-look pass from Martel to make it 2-1, then Adam Erne made it 3-1 early in the second.
Fists flew after that, with the teams combining to amass 58 penalty minutes. It wasn’t expected, but the response shown by the Lightning in a physically bruising game was welcomed. They spent years not having the toughness to compete with other teams, especially those in the Western Conference, so the fact they stood tall and refused to be rattled was a positive sign for the road ahead.
Lightning Play Role of Comeback Kids
Four nights after blowing multiple one-goal leads and falling in the extra frame, the Lightning showed the will to win in an exciting game between two high-flying offenses. Overcoming a 3-1 deficit after 20 minutes of play, they showed resiliency in the face of adversity. Instead of getting out of their structure, they took advantage of mistakes by the Flames to score two quick goals early in the middle frame. That tied the score at three apiece.
Defenseman Dan Girardi scored the go-ahead goal in the final 10 minutes of regulation, but a blind pass sprung the always-dangerous Gaudreau on a breakaway. He didn’t miss, and the Lightning found themselves headed to extra time once again.
Two nights later, the Lightning twice found themselves down by a single goal to an improved Oilers squad featuring an array of first overall draft picks. They responded each time, with winger Nikita Kucherov leading the way. He assisted on a Stamkos goal to tie things at one, then converted on a breakaway to knot the game at two.
Kucherov had five points in all, carrying the Lightning on a night they got a few lucky bounces with Connor McDavid failing to record a goal despite a number of Grade-A opportunities. That earned Kucherov NHL Third Star of the Week honors for the week ending on Dec. 23. While he made the difference against the Oilers, another player stood out in every game of the recently-completed trip.
Stamkos Hits Two Milestones in Another Strong Week
A week after providing five goals and his ninth career hat trick, Stamkos recorded another big week this past week. He helped lead the Lightning to a 3-0-1 record on what was expected to be a difficult jaunt through a few different time zones.
Playing in the 700th game of his career against the Flames, Stamkos’ second period tally was the 366th of his career. That vaulted him past Martin St. Louis for second all-time in goals for the Lightning, 18 away from topping the current leader, Vincent Lecavalier.
During the trip out west, Stamkos put up five goals and six points in four games. Perhaps more importantly, he found a way to make a difference by scoring big goals that either keyed a comeback or provided needed insurance late in games. After a slow start to the season, the captain has broken out in the month of December.
With three games remaining, he has 12 goals. That’s four more than his total of eight through the season’s first two months. If he continues on this pace and remains healthy, it’s not a stretch to say the captain could reach 40-plus goals this season. That would give the Lightning a boost heading down the stretch and into what they hope is an extended playoff run.
What’s Up Next
The Lightning open their post-Christmas break schedule by hosting the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens. After that, they head back out west, this time to California, for games against the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks to begin 2019.
All statistics courtesy of Tampa Bay Lightning.