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The Lightning at the break

Julien BriseBois. Photo compliments of the Tampa Bay Lightning via their Twitter (@TBLightning)

The NHL didn’t roar into the All-Star Break with a finale of offensive fireworks as the final two games before the unofficial halfway mark of the season were low-scoring affairs won by teams thinking more about their long-term future than a date with the Stanley Cup [ed. note – did I think today was Thursday? Yes I did. There are 3 games tonight …JG] First up, Elvis Merzlikins, who might be auditioning for a deadline move to a contender, posted 21 saves in Columbus’ 1-0 win over the St. Louis Blues. In the night cap, it was MacKenzie Blackwood’s 32 saves that led the San Jose Shark to a rare win this season as they blanked the Seattle Kraken, 2-0.

Neither outcome had much of an effect on the Tampa Bay Lightning who enter the break with a 27-18-5 record which is good for 59 points in 50 games and the third spot in the Atlantic Division. They hold a one point lead on the Toronto Maple Leafs who have 58 points in 47 games and a two-point lead over the second wild card team, the Detroit Red Wings who have 57 points in 49 games [ed. note #2 – Wings play tonight and can tie the Bolts with a win over the Sens..JG].

The good news is that the recent winning ways by the Bolts have opened up a bit of a gap between them and the teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture. The Islanders are at 52 points in 49 games and then there are a trio of teams at 51 points.

While the Bolts aren’t quite as locked into a spot as they were at this point last season, they are a lot more comfortable than they were a couple of weeks ago. Their playoff probabilities are rising and it’s unlikely that they will be entering a rebuilding phase at the trade deadline. A few weeks ago we mentioned that what they would do at the trade deadline likely depended on how they were playing, and their position in the standings, at the All-Star Break.

In his mid-season address to the media, general manager Julien BriseBois believed that the pieces were starting to come together. Other than confirming that Steven Stamkos wasn’t going anywhere, he gave his usual platitudes about always wanting to strengthen the roster.

Chances are there might be some slight tinkering, but at this point, any player they bring in would need another player to leave the roster. It’s a position he’s been in before and found a way, for better or worse, to make an impactful deal. While fans and writers make hay out of rumors and potential deals, he does have to deal with the reality that making actual trades in a competitive market is a lot harder than just typing out the words.

With 32 games left in their season, it would take quite a run to make up the 12 points that separate them and the Boston Bruins at the top of the division, but it’s not impossible. The website, Tankathon, has the Lightning with the 22nd hardest schedule remaining based on the teams they have to play while they rate Boston with the second. For good measure, second place Florida has the ninth-hardest schedule remaining according to their calculations.

Coach Cooper has always preached process over results in the past, maintaining that he is more concerned with how his team is playing as opposed to if they win or not. In recent seasons, that has been a luxury afforded to him based on the team’s position in the standings. This year they need to do both – win the games and play well.

We have seen that over the last few weeks as they’ve gone 10-3 since New Year’s Eve. They aren’t a perfect team by any means, but they’re handling in-game adversity better, cutting down on their mistakes, and getting a few more bounces their way as well. We can comfortably call them a playoff team at this point. Are they a true Stanley Cup contender? Well, that might be a stretch.

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