In a wide-open Southeast Division race, the Tampa Bay Lightning were thought to be the only team that could be counted out. Outstanding road play, though, has put them right back into the mix.
The resurgent Lightning hope that success continues at home when they face the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.
Tampa Bay (25-27-6) has been at the bottom of the Southeast most of this season, trailing the first-place Hurricanes by 13 points as recently as Jan. 5. The Lightning figured to be one of the teams doing most of the dealing at the Feb. 26 trading deadline, but a recent surge has pulled them with six points of division co-leaders Carolina and Atlanta.
The Lightning improved to 4-0-1 in their last five games and 8-3-1 in their last 12. Most of that success has come on the road, where they have won seven of nine (7-0-2).
“I think we’re realizing that we’ve got to win some games,” Boyle said. “If we lose a couple we’re going to be finding ourselves in the back seat here. With so few games to go it’s no secret. We have to win games.”
Since losing five in a row at home, Tampa Bay has managed to split its last six games at the St. Pete Times Forum. The Lightning started this season by winning 11 of their first 15 home games (11-3-1).
While not the sole reason for the team’s improved play, Boyle’s return following a 36-game absence has helped Tampa Bay become a much more difficult team to defend. Since returning from wrist surgery on Jan. 24, Boyle has helped the Lightning go 5-3-1, picking up a point in six of those nine games while playing at least 24 minutes in each contest.
Top center Vincent Lecavalier also has played a big role in the resurgence, with four goals and eight assists in his last 11 games. Lecavalier, tied for second in the NHL with 75 points, has four goals and five assists in five games this season against the Capitals (27-26-6).
The only player with more points than Lecavalier is Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, who has 78. Ovechkin was held without a point Friday as the Capitals allowed three third-period goals in a 4-2 loss at Florida.
“I don’t know if they did anything to Alex at all,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He might just not have played his best. He’s played great for 57 games, I think we’ve got to cut him a little slack.”
Ovechkin, who entered Friday with nine goals in his previous seven games, has three goals and three assists in five games this season against Tampa Bay. He hasn’t gone pointless in consecutive contests since Nov. 5-6.
Friday’s loss prevented Washington from moving into a tie for the Southeast lead.
“Not taking anything away from them, they played hard, the other team,” Boudreau said. “Tonight I thought for the most part we beat ourselves.”
The Capitals are 3-2-0 this season against the Lightning, winning the last two meetings by 3-2 scores.