The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by one point last spring and had a lot of time to stew about the close shave. They started this season 15-2-2 and hit town tonight on their first blip of the season, a 1-3 stretch that has seen them get outscored, 15-9.
The Lightning hasn't played since Saturday's 5-2 loss in Pittsburgh. They were off Sunday and practiced here Monday, so coach Jon Cooper is interested to see what reaction he gets against the Sabres.
"Do you want adversity? Probably not," Cooper said today in KeyBank Center. "But is it a bad thing? Probably not either. You have to learn from these. So many things went right for us that some things came a little bit easy to us. I believe we earned those breaks but it might be a little time now where things aren't coming as easy for us to reset and figure out why we got those breaks and get back to that."
Only a couple of players and backup goalie Peter Budaj skated for the Bolts today. You look at the Tampa lineup and it's shake-your-head stuff. Steven Stamkos (10-26-36) and Nikita Kucherov (17-17-34) are 1-2 in the NHL in scoring. Ten players are in double digits in points.
There's lots more. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins (15) while sporting a 2.31 goals-against average and .930 save percentage. The power play is No. 1 in the league. Rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (5-10-15) has been solid since being acquired over the summer from Montreal and continues to make you wonder why Tim Murray drafted Alexander Nylander one spot ahead of him when the draft was here 17 months ago.
The Bolts went to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, losing a six-game tussle to Chicago, and fell in Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final at Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay missed the playoffs last year as Stamkos sat out the final 65 games with a knee injury and a 10-1-1 finish left the Lightning one point short. At 94 points, they would have been very dangerous had they snuck in.
But maybe that step back is what's fueling this team. The Sabres are just 1-8-1 in their last 10 games against Tampa Bay and this season series looks like a mismatch. Tonight's game is the first of four meetings this year.
"They're the top team in the East and it's a terrific challenge for our group, where we sit and where they sit," admitted Sabres coach Phil Housley. "I'm sure they respect us as an opponent. Any team at any point in the season can beat anybody. They've lost the last two so I'm sure they're going to be addressing some situations in their locker room."
"We probably needed a little bit of rest and got some," Cooper said. "We had a pretty spirited practice yesterday. I liked our energy, I liked what was going on. I have no idea how the game is going to turn out but I expect a good effort from our guys."