3 big questions heading into Lightning’s four-game West Coast trip

TAMPA — The Lightning are by no means in a comfortable position in the playoff race, but as the team heads West for a four-game trip on which it should pile up points, it has built a bit of a lead on its competition.

Tampa Bay will wake up Tuesday in Las Vegas in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, three points ahead of Washington, which is followed by five teams within seven points of the Capitals.

The Lightning are in a slightly better position than they were two weeks ago, but only in that the teams most closely pursuing them — the Capitals, Red Wings and Islanders — failed to take advantage of the games they had in hand.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has won three straight and four of its last five, capped by back-to-back wins last week over the East’s division leaders, the Rangers and Panthers.

Still, the Lightning have to make good on the games they should win.

“We have no choice,” captain Steven Stamkos said.

Can they continue to build road momentum?

If you have any chance of going deep into the playoffs, you have to win on the road. And after struggling for most of the season, the Lightning have played well away from Amalie Arena of late. They have won five of their last six road games, with four of those wins coming against teams in playoff contention.

“It’s just that time of the year, with the position that we’re in, we have to go, regardless of the situation, and collect points,” Stamkos said. “You may not be at your best every night, but you have to get points and that’s that’s the goal right now.”

A trip out West has its own challenges, none more important than getting used to the three-hour time change. The low point of the Lightning’s road schedule this season was a five-game swing through Western Canada in December in which Tampa Bay went 2-3-0. But they have played well against the Pacific Division, going 8-3-1, and they’ve beaten all four teams they face on this trip at home this season.

“We’ve had success at times, and other times we haven’t,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re not playing at altitude, which is a good thing. Those are always tougher ones to kind of navigate around. But it’s usually that first day or two when guys will be up at 5 or 6 in the morning because of the time change, but it’s usually we’ve had decent success out there, so hopefully we can do it again.”

Can they stay out of the box?

Over the past few years, the Lightning have been one of the most penalized teams in the league. This season, their penalties — especially the minor ones — are down as a whole. But lately, they’ve been giving opponents too many chances with the man-advantage.

That came to a head in Saturday’s win at Florida, as the Panthers had seven power plays and the Lightning were on the penalty kill for more than 11 minutes. It took away from the momentum Tampa Bay created in 5-on-5 play and limited the amount of time many of its top offensive players were on the ice. It also let the Panthers back into the game after the Lightning took an early four-goal lead.

“Some of them are just being on the right side so you don’t have to put a stick in or reach,” Stamkos said. “Or just the ticky-tacky ones that if you are in the right position or take an extra stride, then you probably avoid those situations. But that’s a way to bite yourself in the rear end is by taking too many penalties, and you’re not always going to get away with it like you did last game.”

Very quietly, the penalty kill has bailed out the Lightning. Over the past 11 games, it is killing off penalties at an exemplary 86.5% success rate. But the unit has been on the ice too often. In 17 games since the All-Star break, Tampa Bay is allowing its opponents an average of 3.5 power plays per game, which is a lot.

Will Jeannot play?

Physical forward Tanner Jeannot has been a full participant in practice for nearly two weeks, seemingly doing everything he needs to in order to be a game-day option. He made the up-and-back trip to Florida, but he’s been absent from the lineup for more than a month now.

Cooper has been extremely coy about Jeannot’s return, and when asked Monday whether Jeannot would play on the upcoming trip he said, ”I suspect he will, just not sure when.”

Jeannot has missed 25 of the last 26 games. It’s clear the Lightning haven’t given him a full green light out of an abundance of caution. It’s also clear his current injury was a reaggravation of the one he sustained on Jan. 6.

Jeannot wants to be on the ice, and with only so many games remaining the opportunity for him to get his game going is shrinking. Remember that it took him a while to get comfortable in the Lightning lineup after he was acquired at last season’s trade deadline, and right when he started to find his footing he got hurt.

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