TAMPA – A major cruise terminal sits a mere slapshot away from the Tampa Times Forum.
It seems entirely appropriate these days as the Tampa Lightning are fast gaining ground on the ships in front of them. Or, more accurately, the ships in front of them are backing up to at least give the Lightning a faint hope of qualifying for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.
What seemed impossible before the All-Star break has been upgraded to improbable. Should the Lightning take advantage of their current four-game homestand – it began with Tuesday’s game against the Ottawa Senators – they could suddenly become a serious part of the mix. A late run to the post-season could also alter what course GM Steve Yzerman chooses to chart before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
While the Lightning went into Tuesday’s game in a three-way tie for 12th spot in the East, they were only eight points behind the eighth-placed Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Lightning had a 7-2-2 record in their previous 10 games, the teams just in front of them were listing badly.
The seventh-placed Senators had lost eight of their previous nine. The Leafs and the ninth-placed Washington Capitals had both lost three straight. The tenth-placed Winnipeg Jets are barely treading water, losing six of their previous 10.
It’s almost like a life raft has been thrown out for the Lightning. By picking up 16 out of a possible 22 points in their past 11 games, they’ve gained ground on every team in the East.
“It has kicked in since the All-Star break, realizing that every game is important,” Lightning sniper Steve Stamkos said before meeting the Senators. “We can’t just be expecting teams to help us by losing games. We have to take advantage (the home schedule).”
As is typically the case for teams on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, the impending trade deadline always makes players nervous. Yet the more the Lightning win, the less likely it is that Yzerman will shake up the team.
“We’re aware of it,” said Stamkos. “It’s two weeks away. We obviously like the group that is in this room. We would like to win with this group, but we realize if it doesn’t go as planned, there are probably going to be some moves. So, we want to put ourselves in a position where we are still battling for a playoff position and ultimately improve the team and make a run for a playoff spot.”
Ryan Shannon, the former Senator, says the team must treat almost every game like it is a playoff game. “We have no time to waste,” he said.