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Friday, Oct 20, 2017
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Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning gear up for playoff push

TAMPA - Before the buzz of Sunday's Olympic gold-medal match between the United States and Canada simmers down, the NHL schedule will heat back up. For the Lightning, their season resumes Tuesday with a nationally televised game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It marks the first of 21 games that remain for a Tampa Bay team that finds itself in the middle of a playoff race for the first time since 2006-07 when the Lightning last qualified for the postseason. The past two seasons were miserable coming down the stretch as Tampa Bay was long out of the playoff picture. This year, however, the Lightning sit one point behind Montreal for the final playoff spot with two games in hand. They also are four points behind Philadelphia for the sixth spot. So, all the recent drama and pending ownership change aside, it's an exciting time for a franchise trying to recapture its fan base.
"You should be excited to be here," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "It's great to be in a situation every game where it means something. It brings out the best in you. It should be fun to play as a player and it's fun as a coach. I'm excited about that." But what will it take for those meaningful games to result in a playoff spot come April? Here's a look at what lies ahead and what Tampa Bay must do to be inside the top eight following the April 11 season finale at Florida. Schedule Of the 21 games left, 11 are on home ice, where the Lightning are 17-7-6. That's the good news, especially with Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Phoenix, Washington and Ottawa still on the home schedule. But protecting home ice won't be good enough and Tampa Bay is going to have to improve on its 9-17-5 road record, particularly on a key four-game trip through Boston, Buffalo, Columbus and Pittsburgh from March 25-31. Offense Scoring consistency has been an issue most of the season, as has secondary scoring. In the past 12 games, the trio of Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis and Steve Downie has scored 24 of the past 32 goals. As strong as that production has been, it can't be counted on to continue at that pace. Others are going to have to step up their game and production. Goaltending As Tampa Bay shot up the standings before the Olympic break, the run was fueled by the strong play of Antero Niittymaki in net. But in three consecutive losses to close out the pre-Olympic schedule, the play in net was average to awful. To get into a playoff position, either Mike Smith or Niittymaki will have to provide some consistency to serve as the backbone of any kind of run the team will need to put together. Reporter Erik Erlendsson can be reached at

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