A lot is riding on the Lightning’s final 20 games

TAMPA — The Lightning enter the weekend with just 20 games remaining in the regular season. And unlike recent years, their place in the postseason is far from secured.

At this point in the season, teams are what they are. There are no pretenders. Teams know where they stand in the stretch run, and they know what kind of hockey they need to play to reach the playoffs. The intensity ramps up around the league.

“I always think that when March 1 hits ... everybody’s pushing,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “But everybody pushes in different ways.

“There’s teams that are out so they’re playing all these new guys that are fighting for contracts or trying to get into the league next year. So they’re a whole different challenge. There’s the teams that are locked up. So they’re just jockeying for position, kind of fine-tuning their game. And there’s a whole slew of teams that are just trying to kick the piss out of each other and get in the playoffs. Do things amp up? There’s no question.”

Following their 3-2 overtime loss to the Sabres on Thursday, the Lightning still sat in the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot — the second wild card — and are now five points ahead of their nearest competition, the Capitals, with the Devils and Islanders another point behind.

For most of the season, the Lightning have been inconsistent. They play sound 60 minutes of fundamental hockey in bursts, then turn around and become their own worst enemy, committing costly turnovers and penalties and allowing Grade-A scoring chances.

The next seven weeks will define their season. Here are three factors that will come into play.

A friendly schedule

Among the Lightning’s remaining 20 games, 11 are against teams currently outside the playoff picture.

Two websites that rate schedule strength — Tankathon and Playoff Status — rank the Lightning as having the easier remaining schedule. They also have the fewest games remaining in the Eastern Conference, giving other teams more of an opportunity to catch them.

Nine of the 20 are against Atlantic Division rivals — the Lightning are just 6-7-4 against the division going into Saturday’s home game against Montreal — and games against the Islanders (March 30) and Red Wings (April 1) over a three-day stretch at Amalie Arena loom large because the points are precious; a three-game, four-day road trip to Toronto, Montreal and Pittsburgh follows.

Lineup consistency

The Lightning’s roster could look different depending on what general manager Julien BriseBois does before next Friday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline. BriseBois has the usual obstacles to making a trade — salary cap constraints and a depleted trade asset inventory — but he always seems to pull off a deal or two at this time of the year.

The Lightning employed an 11-forward, seven-defenseman lineup the past four games. It’s a format that has allowed the team to get its top point-producing forwards like Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Hagel more ice time double-shifting while defenseman Victor Hedman eats up big minutes playing on all three units with Mikhail Sergachev injured. Ideally, it gets the puck in your best players’ hands more often.

It’s a system that Cooper also has had success with in the playoffs, but when the Lighting were playing their best hockey earlier in the season, they had a consistent lineup.

Urgency, urgency, urgency

This Lightning team has shown a puzzling lack of urgency at times. Even with the core group unchanged, this isn’t the same team as a whole that has shown the ability to “flip the switch” when the postseason nears.

Facing mostly teams that, on paper, they should beat, they can’t lack adrenaline now. And even though the schedule is favorable, it still includes two games against Toronto and one each against the Panthers, Bruins and Rangers — all teams that the Lightning have struggled against recently and could stand in their way in the postseason. As much as it’s about winning the games against the teams you’re supposed to beat, strong performances against the contenders will go a long way toward building confidence.

Ultimately, the Lightning have to worry most about making their own game consistent over a 60-minute stretch each game night. They have faith that with their leadership group, and Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, they’ll get the job done as the season winds down.

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