BY BROOKS ROLAND
Since the calendar flipped over to 2016, the Tampa Bay Lightning have seen an up-and-down six-game homestand end with a shootout victory over the Minnesota Wild as well as the news of Jonathan Drouin’s agent publicly releasing a statement that he sent a trade request to the Lightning on his client’s behalf back in November. In other words, a four-game road trip through Western Canada and Colorado couldn’t have come at a better time.
Sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 42 points, the Bolts are two points out of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and three points out of third place in the Atlantic Division. Over the last month-and-a-half, we’ve seen numerous situations where the Lightning have been on the verge of breaking into a sizable winning streak only to see their momentum stifled with a puzzling loss or two. This week, the Bolts will play the first three contests of their four-game road trip in Western Canada, where they will once again look to build off a victory and try to put together a winning/points streak that will get them into a more favorable playoff position.
JANUARY 5TH AT CALGARY
The road trip starts off tonight in Calgary, where the Lightning will take on a Flames team that is beginning a four-game stand. Calgary is in the middle of a stretch where they’re playing eight out of nine at home before embarking on a five-game road trip later this month. This is the second and final meeting between Tampa Bay and Calgary, who last met at Amalie Arena on November 12th, a 3-1 Lightning victory. The Flames got off to a rough start this season, but a seven-game winning streak in the beginning of December helped them trend upwards and after winning three of their last five, they’re in sixth place in the Pacific Division with a record of 18-18-2. Even though they’re seven points out of the last wild card spot in the Western Conference, they’re actually in the middle of the playoff hunt due to the fact they trail the Anaheim Ducks by just one point for third-place in the weak Pacific Division. The play of goaltender Karri Ramo, who rebounded from a bad start, has been a reason why the Flames are not out of the picture yet. On Saturday, Ramo made 26 saves in posting his first shutout of the season in a 4-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. He still doesn’t have what you’d call eye-popping stats, although his 2.60 GAA and .910 save percentage are an improvement over what he was posting after the first month-and-a-half of the season. However, with the exception of Saturday night, the Flames have mostly struggled to keep pucks out of their net, as they have given up the 4th-most goals in the NHL this season. They also struggle in maintaining puck possession and if you thought the Lightning had their struggles on special teams at times this year, at least they’re not in Calgary’s shoes. As of Monday night, the Flames ranked dead last in both power play (12.3%) and penalty killing (74.5%), so this will be a good time for the Lightning to continue their recent run of success on special teams. Calgary will be without forward Jiri Hudler, who left Saturday’s game due to a lower-body injury and did not return.
JANUARY 8TH AT EDMONTON
The second stop on this trip is in Edmonton, where the Lightning will play the Oilers in the first of two meetings this season, both within 11 days of each other. A cursory look at the standings shows the Oilers are once again in the Western Conference basement with a 16-21-3 record, good for 35 points. Even though they’re 10 points out of the second wild card spot, they’re only four points behind Anaheim for the third-place spot in the Pacific Division. Yep, you read that properly. It’s January and Edmonton is not out of the playoff hunt, which is more than what they’ve been able to say for much of the last decade, as the Oilers have not made the playoffs since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2006. This season was supposed to see rookie phenom Connor McDavid take the reins of this franchise and lead them back to respectability, but he’s missed all but 13 games after suffering a broken collarbone against Philadelphia on November 3rd. He was playing very well before that, posting 5 goals and 7 assists before getting hurt. In his absence, Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl have picked up the slack offensively. Hall, the first overall pick in 2010 and one of several high draft picks on this team, is on pace to top his previous career high of 80 points, as he currently has 41 points (16 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games. Draisaitl, the 3rd overall pick in 2014, has found his game in his second season, posting 32 points (9 goals, 23 assists) while being tied with Hall for the team lead in plus-minus at plus-11. While Edmonton has been much more competitive this season than years past, the Oilers still have to find a way to improve their play in their own end, as they’re tied with the Arizona Coyotes for the second-most goals against in the league this season (122). Cam Talbot, who was acquired from the New York Rangers to be their new starting goaltender, lost his job to Anders Nilsson, and then won it back on December 14th when he made 47 saves in a 3-2 OT win in Boston. Talbot made 29 saves in shutting out the Carolina Hurricanes at home on Monday night by a 1-0 score in overtime, and also made 31 saves on Saturday in a 4-3 shootout victory over Arizona. These back-to-back wins followed a four-game losing streak. When the Lightning visit on Friday night, it will be the fifth game of a six-game homestand for the Oilers.
JANUARY 9TH AT VANCOUVER
The Western Canadian portion of the road trip ends in Vancouver on Saturday night for the second and final meeting of the season between the Lightning and the Canucks. The previous contest between these two clubs was at Amalie Arena on December 22nd and saw the Lightning go an abysmal 1-for-10 on the power play in a 2-1 loss. Vancouver has gone 4-2-1 in their last six games, a stretch which also saw them pick up a 2-1 overtime victory over Edmonton the day after Christmas, their first win in eight tries during 3-on-3 overtime. Since ending a six-game road trip by beating the Lightning, the Canucks have gone 2-2 in the first four games of a seven-game homestand, picking up that elusive OT win over the Oilers, getting shutout by the Kings 5-0, edging the Ducks 2-1 in a shootout before dropping a 3-2 decision to the Coyotes. Vancouver is 15-16-9, residing in fourth-place in the Pacific Division with 39 points, the same number as Anaheim, who has two games in hand. Much like the rest of the Pacific Division, it looks like their best chance of getting into the postseason is to finish in the top-3 of the division because of Central Division has control of the two wild card positions; the Canucks are currently six points behind Nashville for the last wild card spot. Jacob Markstrom has started five straight games after Ryan Miller went down with a groin injury on December 20th against Florida, going 3-2-0 in those games. In Monday’s game against the Coyotes, the Canucks ended an 0-for-20 slump on the power play when Bo Horvat scored on the man-advantage in the second period. It ended a nine-game drought on the power play, a stretch that extended back to December 13th. Even though Vancouver has played better as of late, this is still a team that is prone to breakdowns in their own zone and has also struggled on special teams (their 90% penalty-kill rate against the Lightning in their last meeting being an obvious exception). The Canucks will host Carolina on Wednesday before welcoming the Bolts to town on Saturday night in the sixth game of their long homestand. It will also be the second of back-to-back contests for the Lightning, the seventh time they will play back-to-back games this season.
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