Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 2/1/12
It's too early to presume the Tampa Bay Lightning are poised to do something special in the second half of the 2011-12 season. But the Bolts certainly have gotten our attention again, and that's no small feat for a team that looked as if it was heading down the tubes barely two weeks ago. Their 4-3 overtime victory against the visiting Washington Capitals Tuesday night at the Forum was noteworthy for several reasons. It lifted the Lightning to a season-high fifth consecutive win on the heels of a four-game losing streak. It pulled Tampa Bay (22-23-4) to within eight points of first-place Washington in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division, as well as within eight points of the final playoff spot. And it underscored the resilience that head coach Guy Boucher's squad had been lacking so recently: staying aggressive after blowing a 3-1 lead in the third period and winning it in OT on Steven Stamkos' league-leading 33rd goal. Those are all encouraging signs as the Bolts struggle to overcome a disappointing start, following last season's amazing run to the brink of the Stanley Cup Finals. What's more, they are entering a friendly portion of their schedule with a chance to build on the newfound momentum: with consecutive home games Thursday against Winnipeg, Saturday against Florida and Tuesday against Los Angeles. Of those three teams, only the Kings have been playing well lately, so the Lightning have an ideal opportunity to cash in and gain more ground in the playoff hunt. The latest breakthrough wasn't without some glitches. Boucher lamented that his team didn't take advantage of some open-net chances during the game that might have prevented it from going to overtime. And by letting the Caps back into the contest late with an OT period, Tampa Bay did give its division foe a point in the standings something that could become a factor down the road. But all things considered, Lightning players couldn't have been happier with the outcome. "We're playing a lot of big games right now," Stamkos said. "We gave Washington one point and we got to catch some other teams as well. We're going to take every point that we can get." If the Lightning win Thursday against division-made Winnipeg (one spot ahead at 23-22-4), it will match the six-game winning streak from last year at just about the same time: Jan. 18-Feb. 1. And the confidence that has been spreading could keep fueling the team's resurgent efforts. "(The streak is) a good sign for us, but we still got a lot of hockey left and some big games coming up," said forward Nate Thompson, who had his first two-goal game of the season Tuesday. "We're at home a lot which is good for us because we usually play pretty well at home if we can just manage it, keep playing our game and keep on scoring." The Lightning got a lift with the return of defenseman Victor Hedman, back after missing 13 games due to a concussion, and other recently injured players Ryan Shannon (knee), JT Wyman (hand) and Tom Pyatt (leg) also were back. But an even bigger lift came from goalkeeper Mathieu Garon, whose 26 saves made the difference. In fact, two of his key saves and a quick feed to Marty St. Louis helped get the game-winning score by Stamkos in gear. "I don't believe much in tipping points," Boucher said. "I believe in every second and every moment to turn things around. Even when they scored that third goal, I kept saying on the bench Be in the moment. Be in the moment. It's not about what just happened, it's about what we're going to do next.' Then we pushed overtime and we didn't hold back. We didn't skate to lose, we were playing to win." The Lightning improved to 7-4-0 in game that have gone past regulation (5-1 in overtime and 2-3 in shootouts). The Bolts are even more effective in one-goal games this season, with a mark of 13-2-4. The challenge ahead remains daunting, given how much ground they have to make up. Last year, their record after a comparable number of games was 29-15-5. But clearly the team that struggled so much with poor defense and inconsistent offense is starting to believe in itself again. And there's more than enough hockey left on the schedule for something special to take place. At least for now, musing about playoff chances no longer seems like an act of futility.
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