Lightning: A Different Kind of Spring Training

Lightning look distracted, fall to Arizona

On a night where the Tampa Bay Lightning honored the Tampa Bay Rays with themed warmup jerseys, they went on to play a game with a Spring Training feel in losing 4-1 to the Arizona Coyotes on Monday night.

The phrase “second season” is sometimes used in reference to the playoffs in a given sport. In hockey, it seems like it’s most fitting of all.

The NHL playoffs are a long, grueling endeavor, taking about two months and as many as 28 games for a team to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup in June. While over half the league qualifies, there are no opponents that can truly be taken lightly and no games where a team can coast a bit.

It was important, then, that the Lightning used Monday night’s 76th game of the season against the Arizona Coyotes to keep sharpened up. “Spring Training” might be a baseball thing, but on Monday night it seemed as though the game was exactly that for the Bolts: Some training for the upcoming Spring and the postseason.

The lineup looked a little bit like pre-postseason more than a regular season Lightning lineup. Louis Domingue was the goaltender, with the Lightning hurrying to get him some work in case he’s needed in an emergency come the playoffs. Steven Stamkos was again out of the lineup

The somewhat sleepy first period underlined the feel of the game. The Lightning were content to set up more slowly than usual when they would possess the puck, starting many of their offensive ideas with a defenseman holding the puck in their own zone for a moment. Things seemed a bit experimental for the Lightning on Monday night as they made the extra pass and played a more patient style of hockey than fans might be used to.

That is not to say the Lightning played passively. Tampa Bay showed improvement on their first and second penalty kills, staying at their positions, clogging lanes, and clearing the puck decisively when given the chance. Perhaps it was an exercise in trying to get used to playing at a different pace, knowing they will inevitably have to do so at times in the playoffs if they are to make a deep run. Maybe instead the absence of Stamkos and the presence of a backup netminder caused Tampa Bay to try a more cautious style of play.

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov skates before an NHL hockey game against the Arizona Coyotes, Monday, March 26, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

The Arizona Coyotes were playing with an eye on the future as well, but theirs is not quite as immediate. Arizona is in the midst of a rebuild as well. The Coyotes have the third-youngest roster in the NHL at the moment, looking beyond this season and potentially beyond next season as they try to load up their roster enough to compete with the league’s best. On Monday night, they certainly showed signs of that capability.

The problem with the Lightning seeming to gear up for the playoffs is that there was no room whatsoever to treat Monday night’s game as a glorified practice. Tampa Bay is just two points ahead of the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division, with the Bruins holding two games in hand over the Lightning. Boston, then, is the one now in the driver’s seat, simply needing to win those extra games and their games against Tampa Bay to pry away a division that for much of the season seemed firmly in the Lightning’s control.

Trevor Murphy struck first, giving the Coyotes the lead just over the midway point of the game. The Arizona defenseman’s goal was his first of his career, and it came on a big slapshot that simply got past Louis Domingue to put the Coyotes on top.

Jakob Chychrun doubled the lead late in the second on the power play. After two straight solid penalty kills for the Lightning, the third time they chased the puck and scrambled for positioning. Combine that with Louis Domingue ending up on his back and trying to get back up, and it led to an Arizona goal. World-class rookie Clayton Keller got an assist on the Chychrun goal.

From here, the Lightning go back on the road for a Thursday night meeting with the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have had the Lightning’s number in their previous two meetings this season, most notably in a 3-0 loss where the Bruins looked dominant and the Lightning looked out of sorts throughout at Amalie Arena on March 17th. With the division tightening up, the game will have major playoff implications for both teams, making it one of the biggest games the Lightning will play this regular season.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.