How ‘confident’ Lightning are rounding into playoff form

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper joins the Jeff Marek Show to discuss his idea to add two minutes to NHL's current 3-on-3 OT format, and why the OT strategies have changed so much since the origin of this format.

For the first time in a long time, the Tampa Bay Lightning are flying under the radar. With a top-three spot in the Atlantic Division likely out of reach, the Lightning have settled into the first wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference.

The bad news for the Bolts’ eventual first-round opponent is that after looking out of sync for the first three quarters of the season, they seem to have found their championship-winning form. Since the beginning of March, Tampa Bay’s .792 points percentage (9-2-1) ranks second in the NHL.

Tampa Bay’s attack remains dangerous, averaging four goals per game since March 1, second most in the league over that span. The addition of Anthony Duclair at the trade deadline was a savvy one by general manager Julien BriseBois. Duclair, who has nine points in 10 games, has teamed with the wizardly Nikita Kucherov and big-time scorer Brayden Point to form a potent top line.

“(Duclair) can really back the ‘D’ up, and when you do that, if you’re coming late, especially the centreman in that kind of second wave, there’s going to be time there,” Point told the Tampa Bay Times. “He’s a guy that can speed up the game and really does create a lot of time and space for you.”

The biggest change for the Lightning over the past 12 games has come in the defensive end, where they are eighth in expected goals against per game (2.78) since the start of last month — down from 3.04 (15th) between October and February. Most impressively, Tampa Bay has killed 35 of 36 penalties (97.2 per cent) since March 1.

Of course, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had a (gloved) hand in Tampa Bay’s hot streak. The decorated goaltender, who missed the first 20 games of the season while recovering from September back surgery, was not himself until recently.

“It’s a collective thing, but it starts with him,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos told reporters. “And when he’s feeling it, the ‘D’ are more confident, forwards are more confident. … It’s certainly great for us when he’s starting to feel good.”

Despite up-and-down play through most of the season, the Lightning are on pace to finish with 99 points. Their roster is filled with proven playoff performers, and unlike last year, they are not running on fumes after three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning will be a tough out for whichever team draws them in the playoffs.

“Sometimes it can be frustrating when you’re not in first or second place, and instead you’re fourth or fifth,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said recently. “All of a sudden, there’s thoughts that maybe our guys are lacking, maybe they don’t have that belief. But…there was always belief in this group. It was just a question of how (we can) make these pieces fit. And lately, we’re starting to put the puzzle together.”

All stats via Sportlogiq

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