Have the Cup champions turned a corner?  Observations from Lightning's eventful week

Have the Cup champions turned a corner? Observations from Lightning’s eventful week

Turns out, the demise of the Lightning was greatly exaggerated.

We’re joking, of course.

But five days, ago there were sounds of alarm after the Cup champs lost to the lowly Red Wings. Steven Stamkos indicated that not everyone was “on board.” Coach Jon Cooper said everyone had to check their egos at the door. They talked about needing to find their game before the playoffs.

Convinced yet?

The Lightning beat the best-in-the-Eastern Conference Panthers on Sunday night, 8-4, in their most impressive victory of this calendar year. Their stars were stars, with Nikita Kucherov (five points) and Victor Hedman and Stamkos each racking up four. Trade deadline acquisition Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel combined for one of the slickest goals of the season. The Panthers had won 13 in a row. Not anymore.

“We knew the streak they were on,” Paul said. “And we wanted to come in here and be the ones who ended it.”

We don’t know how far Tampa Bay will be able to go in its historic three-peat quest, but it’s at least got to feel better about its game after this past week. From the outdoor game victory in Nashville in late February until Wednesday, the Lightning were 1-9-1 against playoff teams, and that one win was an overtime victory against the Hurricanes.

In the past week, Tampa Bay has beaten the Leafs, Predators and Panthers by a combined 22-7. Three wins in four days over playoff teams after having just one in a month in a half. Special teams have played a big role recently, including four of Tampa Bay’s eight goals Sunday (three power-play, one short-handed). And the real test will come starting Monday when the Lightning are likely to open the Stanley Cup Playoffs against Toronto. But this has to be a mental boost for Tampa Bay, giving both the Leafs and the Panthers something to think about.

“This is a pretty electrifying opponent,” Cooper said. “They would punch, we would counterpunch and, in the end, we hit them a few more times.”

Lightning observations:

• The most encouraging sign for Tampa Bay has been the performance of its top players. Stamkos leads the way and has four straight three-plus point games, giving him 93 points on the season. He recently took over the franchise record for career points from mentor Martin St. Louis, who calls him the best-ever Lightning player.

Kucherov is on a roll, too, with 15 points (seven goals) in his last five games. It’s not a coincidence that the Lightning power play has taken off since he and Stamkos have found more confidence, “Kuch is one of the best players in the world and you see it every shift,” Anthony Cirelli said. “He’s making something happen on the offensive side, but even on the defensive side, he’s making some really good plays with his stick and playing hard.

“I think when Kuch is doing that as one of the best players in the world, it just gives our whole group a little bit of confidence and momentum. When he’s going out there and doing that, it just gets everyone on the bus and gets us going. ”

• Is it too early to re-sign Paul? The former Senators Swiss Army knife has been a tremendous addition for Tampa Bay, with Sunday’s game yet another example. Paul’s between-the-legs finish on a short-handed chance will rank up there as one of the goals of the season for this team, and the fact it was set up by Hagel, another deadline add, is a very good sign.

“That was wicked,” Brayden Point said. “I think that’s something extremely underrated with Pauly is his mitts. He’s got great mitts and he displayed it there. Pretty creative move and great finish. ”

Considering the Lightning have Kucherov, Point, Stamkos and Hedman, the fact Paul has two of the most dazzling plays of the year (his between the legs, no-look feed to Ross Colton a few weeks ago) is impressive. But Paul’s size, snarl and versatility could make him an X-factor when it matters the most, just like the last guy to wear No. 20 for Tampa Bay (Blake Coleman).

“I can play heavy, play hard and win battles,” Paul said. “And I feel like playoff hockey is my kind of hockey.”

• The main concern for the Lightning in the last week is staying healthy, and they appeared to get a bit banged up on the blue line Sunday. Jan Rutta didn’t play the final 13 minutes, and Mikhail Sergachev didn’t play after his second-period fight with Sam Bennett. While there was no official update postgame, neither Sergachev nor Rutta is expected to be out long-term.

Cirelli did not play Sunday, which could very well be Tampa Bay resting him. Point missed Saturday’s game, for example, as Cooper said the star center was dealing with a nagging injury that was more than just a “maintenance” issue.

• We spoke with Andrei Vasilevskiy on Saturday for the first time in a while, and he said while he’s played a lot of hockey the last few years, he’s “mentally in a good place.” He praised backup Brian Elliott for being a good partner and felt like the past couple of games have been a strong step in the right direction. The long and short of it is that he’s ready for playoff hockey, and with him at his best, it’s hard to bet against Tampa Bay.

• The Lightning flew from Sunrise on Sunday night to Washington, DC, where they will be making their visit to the White House with President Joe Biden. It’s a long time coming as Tampa Bay has not yet been there in its three Stanley Cups (including ’04, when the ensuing NHL lockout didn’t allow the Lightning to go). Several players have talked about the honor, no matter if they’re from Canada or Russia or Sweden. They’ll have a VIP tour before an afternoon ceremony, with Ryan McDonagh expected to speak on behalf of the group. “Soak it all in and enjoy it,” Cooper said. “Because you never know if you’re going to get another chance to do it.”

(Photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

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