COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Lightning will ring in the new year on the road, which is fitting.
It will be gone for most of January.
Starting Sunday in Columbus, Tampa Bay plays 13 of its next 16 games away from Amalie Arena. It does get to spend a little time at home — there’s the five-day bye week Jan. 12-16 and the three-day All-Star break Jan. 27-29 — but this is where the schedule gets really nasty.
Along with being road games, many are against divisional opponents that are chasing the Lightning in the standings. For example, Tuesday’s opponent, Toronto, is tied in points with Boston for second place in the Atlantic, eight points behind Tampa Bay.
And the Lightning’s 5-3 loss to the Flyers on Friday is another reminder about how the league’s best team is getting everyone’s best game.
"There’s no question it’s going to be a challenge," coach Jon Cooper said. "If you’re going to make the playoffs, you have to win on the road. … And we’ve done a pretty good job at it this year (11-5-1 road record).
"But now they add up. We’re going into other teams’ buildings during the dog days of the season. You have to be ready, because once the new year hits, all of a sudden (teams) start looking at the standings. Teams know where they are, and you’ve got to game games out."
Captain Steven Stamkos was right Friday when he said that with the Lightning’s sparkling 27-8-2 record, sometimes the team’s flaws get "swept under the rug." It’s easy to see the wins and forget the process.
The Lightning has issues on the penalty kill, which after two goals allowed Friday had fallen to 24th in the league (78.4 percent) entering Saturday. There have been too many games in which the goaltender — usually Andrei Vasilevskiy — has had to bail Tampa Bay out.
This is the type of month that can either shine a light on those flaws Stamkos speaks of or see the Lightning pull away from the pack.
Expecting Stamkos to be named Atlantic Division captain this week for the Jan. 28 All-Star Game in Tampa; fan online voting ends Monday. Nikita Kucherov is a lock to make the team, as should be Vasilevskiy. Maybe Victor Hedman, too.
Cooper has all but sealed his spot behind the bench for the Atlantic team. The coach is determined by what team leads the division in points percentage at the season’s midpoint. Game No. 41 is Saturday in Ottawa.
• Stamkos told Fox Sports Sun during a intermission in Thursday’s game against the Canadiens that he took the Christmas break to hit the reset button on his season. His resolution was to shoot more, believing he was deferring so much to Kucherov. Stamkos has three goals in his past two games and racked up a combined 21 shot attempts. This aggressive mentality could make for a strong second half for Stamkos, who has 16 goals.
• Jonathan Drouin said all the right things in our conversation this week about his return to Tampa for the first time since being traded to Montreal last summer. He said he believed that, money aside, things could have worked long term with the Lightning, that he had patched things up with the organization and Cooper. Drouin, 22, said he regretted not being more patient with his trade request in the 2015-16 season, calling himself "young and stubborn." Another interesting tidbit was that Drouin said that, other than his parents, Ryan Callahan was his biggest influence in deciding to get involved charitably with a Montreal hospital (pledging $500,000 over the next 10 years).
• The website HockeyGraphs brought up an interesting potential trade target for the Lightning: Coyotes forward Anthony Duclair, who could be a low-risk, high-reward option in filling a need at top-nine wing. For what it’s worth, a Coyotes scout was in attendance at Friday’s Lightning game.
Still think Tampa Bay could look for an upgrade on the right side of its blue line, too. Reporter Pierre LeBrun of Canada’s TSN TV network suggested Ottawa’s Cody Ceci as an option.
• Lightning prospects are making an impact on the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y. For Canada, defenseman Cal Foote made a highlight-reel save and forward Boris Katchouk scored in Friday’s shootout loss to the United States.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.