5 key factors for Lightning with 5 games remaining

TAMPA — The Lightning returned from their road trip with a playoff berth in hand and five games remaining on their regular-season schedule.

They currently sit in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and can’t move much from there, entering Monday four points behind the third-place Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division. But Tampa Bay does host Toronto in the regular-season finale on April 17, so there is the possibility of moving up a spot.

Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jackets at Amalie Arena opens the final stretch, with four of the games at home. Of the remaining opponents, only the Leafs currently sit in a playoff spot, though the Capitals are battling for the second wild-card spot.

“We’re in a spot where we’re not going to be moving much, the key point being we’re in a spot and the team’s excited about it,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “What we want as a staff is not to lose our rhythm as a team. And I get there are some mental challenges when you clinch a spot, but eventually you realize you have a spot.

“Now, what’s going to put us in the best position to succeed when the playoffs start? They’re tough spots to be in but good spots to be in. And so you just kind of hope that you get through these games, your game’s in order and you stay healthy.”

This final stretch is important on many levels. Here are five things the Lightning need to attend to as they close out the regular season and prepare for the playoffs.


The Lightning have played their best hockey of the season over the past month, going 10-2-1 since March 9. Moving forward, they want to make sure they don’t peak too early. Most of their remaining games are ones they should win, and even the Maple Leafs will be coming off a game the previous night in Sunrise.

“You always want to feel as good as you can heading into the playoffs,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “But regardless of what happens, it’s been fun to watch this group come together at the right time and to see what we’re capable of when we play the right way.”


The Lightning know the playoffs are a grueling physical grind and understand well the bumps and bruises players endure during deep postseason runs from putting their bodies on the line when it matters most.

But they are certainly dinged up. Anthony Cirelli and Tanner Jeannot sat out Saturday in Pittsburgh but were on the ice for practice Monday. Also, several of the team’s key players have played big minutes over the past month, none more than defenseman Victor Hedman, who is averaging 25:20 over his past 31 games.

Asked whether some of his high-minute players will get a break over the final stetch, Cooper said, “You ask any one of those players, and they’ll give you the stink eye when you say you’ve got to sit out. But we’ll manage it.”


The Lightning have shown determination and focus during their recent surge. Back on March 8, they were clinging to the final wild-card spot by just two points and were 3-5-1 over their previous nine games.

Inside the room, there was a lot of “looking in the mirror,” knowing such results weren’t going to get them to the playoffs.

“Probably a lot of guys counted us out,” Hedman said. “We had it in us, and we proved it once again that we’re a great team and we have a lot of talent.”


Cooper has said many times the Lightning’s surge has been fueled by playing good defense. They’ve allowed an average of 2.46 goals over their last 13 games, nearly a full goal per game less than their previous 3.42.

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has found his form, going 8-2-1 with a .921 save percentage over the past month, including wins over Boston and Toronto in which he allowed just one goal.

“We had some new guys coming in, and they got more acclimated to the way we want them to play,” Hedman said. “And there’s some tweaks to our system that worked our way, and great goaltending. And that’s a combination of everything. Everyone’s taken another step.”


Obviously, Nikita Kucherov has been the Lightning’s best player, and the league’s leading scorer has 30 points (5 goals and 25 assists) over his last 13 games with a plus-10 rating. But the team’s other stars also have played extremely well over the past month.

Brayden Point has 11 goals and 20 points in his last 12 games, Hedman has 14 points in 12 games and is plus-14. Stamkos is getting hot, with five goals on the recent three-game trip, and 12 goals and 20 points over his last 13 games.

“Maybe earlier in the year, maybe besides Kuch, we were all struggling at some point,” Stamkos said. “And we needed to kind of kick it into gear, and I think we have and everyone else has played great, too. ... Our team’s played better, but our best players have been our best players, too.”

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