TAMPA — When the wheels of the Lightning’s chartered airplane touched down at Tampa International Airport shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday night, the most grueling stretch of the season came to a conclusion.
In the span of 19 days starting on Jan. 1, Tampa Bay played 11 games in nine cities spanning four time zones. Along the way, the team traveled nearly 9,600 miles. Though luxuries such as first-class flights and five-star hotels are enjoyed, playing that many games in a compacted period of time takes its toll.
That showed in the final game on Sunday, when Tampa Bay allowed a franchise record 51 shots on goal at Carolina, which finished with 97 attempted shots — 51 on net, 28 blocked and 18 missed — compared to Tampa Bay’s 40 attempts. Despite the 5-3 Tampa Bay victory, there were plenty of signs of fatigue as the final seven days of the Lightning’s venture included five games, including two sets of back-to-backs.
“I could just tell we were a tired team,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “And it’s not just that we are tired physically, we are tired mentally.
“The mistakes that were being made, there were too many in too short of time. It’s not coincidence. This has been a lot of hockey and these guys have gamed it out. Just look at our January schedule, that takes its toll. ...We made some mental errors that I attribute to a team that is at the end of a long road trip.’’
For the rookies on the Lightning, the grind of an NHL schedule is a new experience in a season full of them. And though in the American Hockey League many players are used to playing three games in three days over the weekend, this was a different situation to go through.
“It’s not so much on your body, it’s more mentally fatigued that wears on you,’’ rookie center Tyler Johnson said. “You are always in a new spot, you are living out of a suitcase a majority of the time, playing in different arenas against different teams doing different situations, and it is mentally fatiguing.
“But I think the guys have played well throughout this time and hopefully it’s made us a better team.’’
During the stretch of 11 games, eight of which were on the road, Tampa Bay went 6-4-1. Along the way, the Lightning continued to play without All-Star center Steven Stamkos, lost Vezina Trophy candidate goaltender Ben Bishop and most recently saw top defenseman Victor Hedman go out with a bruise on his right leg after blocking a shot.
Of the five losses, four were by one goal. Twice Tampa Bay gave up the winning goal in the final three minutes of a game, thereby leaving points on the table. Yet, the Lightning woke up Monday with 66 points, tied with Boston atop the Atlantic Division standings.
“You go 6-4-1, if you did that all throughout the year, you probably can make the playoffs, and that’s what we need to do,’’ Cooper said. “Considering who we have played, the miles we have put on our body, I’m happy for our guys.’’
Now, Tampa Bay has a needed three-day break before getting back to action on Thursday at home against Ottawa. The players participated in a charity golf tournament on Monday, but the mini-break between games must feel like a vacation compared to the 19-day stretch the team just went through.
“Five games in seven days, that’s pretty tough, traveling, (this stretch) is tough,’’ captain Marty St. Louis said. “Everybody goes through it, and we’ve found a way. What’s our record, 6-4-1? I’ll take that.’’