The Tampa Bay Lightning were considered a laughingstock earlier this season after a dismal start resulted in the firing of their first-year coach.
With a few more wins, they’ll suddenly have to be regarded as a contender for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The surging Lightning will try to win a fourth straight game for the first time this season on Thursday in Raleigh, where the Carolina Hurricanes are hoping a return home helps solve their recent struggles.
Tampa Bay was 5-7-4 when it fired Barry Melrose on Nov. 14, just 16 games after coaxing him out of the broadcast booth and back behind the bench. They also lost 13 of their first 15 games under interim coach Rick Tocchet, falling to 7-16-9.
They’ve played much better since, going 10-6-1 including wins in six of their last eight games.
The Lightning (17-21-10) went into the All-Star break with wins over Dallas and Buffalo, then opened the second half with a 5-3 home victory over Montreal on Tuesday. Beating Carolina would give them their first four-game winning streak since November 2007.
“We’re becoming a tougher team to play against,” forward Martin St. Louis said.
Tampa Bay trailed the Canadiens 2-1 after getting outshot 20-7 in the first period, but scored the next four goals, getting a goal and an assist each from St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.
“We were a little sleepy. The first period was not a good period for us,” Tocchet said. “The good thing about it, we responded. To me, that’s a sign of a team that’s coming together.”
Any continued push back toward the postseason picture will most likely have to be led by St. Louis and Lecavalier, who have combined for 40 goals and 54 assists this season - including 16 goals and 24 assists in the last 14 games.
Lecavalier has been the subject of trade rumors lately, but the Lightning insist they plan to keep the star center considering they are only eight points behind Florida for the East’s final playoff spot.
Carolina (23-21-5) is one of the teams they are chasing, and the Hurricanes have been helping the Lightning’s cause lately. Coach Paul Maurice’s club lost five straight games from Jan. 8-17, and despite closing the first half with back-to-back victories, returned from the break with a 3-2 road loss to the New York Rangers on Tuesday.
“Obviously, it’s not the way we were hoping to begin this last stretch,” said Cam Ward, who made 28 saves while starting his 14th straight game. “Both teams looked like they had a five-day break.”
Scoring has been a problem for the Hurricanes during their recent swoon. They’re averaging fewer than two goals in their last eight games, getting outscored 27-15 over that span.
Carolina put 35 shots on net at Madison Square Garden, but went 0-for-4 on the power play and could only beat New York backup Stephen Valiquette twice.
There may be reason for optimism as the Hurricanes return to Raleigh after playing seven of their last eight on the road. They’ve won six of their last eight games at the RBC Center.
They’re also 3-0-0 against the Lightning this season, winning by a goal in regulation, overtime and a shootout.
While Ward is 5-1-0 with a 1.65 goals-against average in his last six starts versus Tampa Bay, Lightning goalie Mike Smith is 0-3-2 with a 3.90 lifetime GAA against Carolina.