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Lightning Round: Getting in shape for the playoffs

There are eight games left in the season and then the real fun begins

NHL: APR 25 Blue Jackets at Lightning Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’m not going to lie. Other than the Lightning’s overtime victory against Columbus, not much else happened in the NHL. Nobody was eliminated. I think Minnesota was the only team that clinched a playoff spot. Brad Marchand didn’t lick anyone. It’s that time of year. Half of the fan bases are talking playoffs and clinching scenarios while the other half is figuring out how many days are left until training camp.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning it’s all about rounding their play into shape for the postseason. While it would be nice to finish first, a distinct possibility since they only trail Carolina by two points, they most likely don’t care where they finish since they believe they can win in any building in the league.

The win against Columbus was a good start as they played roughly 75% of a really good game. The last five minutes of the first and portions of the third were a little rough, but their overall game play was pretty solid. More importantly, they played better than they did the game before. Too often during this stretch it seems they’ve turned things around late in a game only to take two steps back the next time out.

They don’t need to be firing on all cylinders just yet, but they need to make sure the engine is at least warmed up. Then, when things matter, they will get a nice boost of Nitrous in the form of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and the race will really take off. Why yes, I have been watching The Fast and Furious lately. Don’t judge me.

At this point, the Lightning are in a nice spot. They can look to see which combinations work on their defense and which players are going to fill out the bottom-six. There are going to be some tough decisions to make. Alex Barre-Boulet has fit in nicely on the top line with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, but that’s not going to last once Kucherov is healthy enough to play. Heck, it may not even last till the end of the season if Stamkos is ready to go in the next week or so.

That will create a trickle-down effect with players getting bumped down. Coach Cooper is loath to break up the Yanni Gourde line so the Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton line are going to be the most affected. Colton’s scoring has cooled off recently, but he’s still been an effective fourth line center. Still, he may not make it to the playoffs if Coop elects to go with Mitchell Stephens instead.

All of these young players, along with veterans Tyler Johnson and Mathieu Joseph are in a spot where they need to play really well over the next few games if they want to see the ice during the post season. It’s a good problem to have. If you’re defending a Stanley Cup, you’d rather have too many decent players competing for too few spots than not having enough talented players to fill the roles.

There is likely to be at least a week or so after the regular season for the Lightning to work through their lines in practice with both of their injured superstars taking line rushes. That’s when we’ll get an idea as to how they will look in Game One of the opening round.

So while there are eight games left in the season, the Lightning aren’t necessarily focused on winning all eight. They are focused on making sure they are executing the fundamentals and preparing for the next step.

Lightning Links

Lightning win, 4-3, in overtime over Columbus

It had to feel food for Heddy to net the overtime goal after he’s been scuffling along for the past couple of weeks. Just remember, the Lightning have played above .500 hockey with two future hall-of-fame forwards out of the line-up, a future hall-of-fame defenseman playing okay, but not great, and a Vezina-winning goaltender also playing slightly below his best. If they all start clicking at the same time it’ll be another sprint to the Stanley Cup.

Blue Jackets lose, 4-3 in overtime to Tampa Bay

Their winless streak is now at nine games, tied for longest in franchise history. However, Eric Robinson has scored three goals this year against Andrei Vasilevskiy, that’s pretty impressive.

Three Things we learned from the Columbus sweep

The Top Line had a hand in every goal. It’s always a nice sign when the big guns, well the healthy ones, are putting the puck in the net.

NHL News

The IIHF Under-18 tournament is pretty important this year

With junior hockey pretty much limping through a season this year, general managers haven’t had their normal access to watching the next generation of NHL’ers play. So the Under-18 tournament, which is chock full of draft-eligible prospects, will be heavily scrutinized by scouts and gm’s. At least those with a first-round pick.

Artem Anisimov - Back-up goalie

The veteran forward was ready to stop pucks instead of shoot them. With Anton Forsburg getting injured in warm-ups and then Matt Murray going down early in the second period, the Ottawa Senators had only Marcus Hogburg left to tend the net. Had he been hurt, Anisimov was prepared to strap on the pads. Also, I didn’t know that a former Bolt, Zac Bierk, was their goaltender coach. Good for him!

“Hallway Hasek” is my new favorite nickname.