Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach Guy Boucher compared his team's plight in the standings to rock climbing. Don't look up or the task at hand might seem hopeless. Don't look down because it's not pretty down there. You focus on the rocks in front of you.
The Lightning have certainly done that. Tampa Bay continued the win streak they began just before the All-Star Break, extending it to five games - longest of the season - with a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory over the Washington Capitals. In the process, the Lightning climbed above another team and into 11th in the Eastern Conference.
The next two teams the Lightning are chasing, Winnipeg and Florida just happen to be their next two opponents at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The ever changing 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is currently inhabited by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who lead the Lightning by 8 points.
With 11 games remaining with the teams they are chasing (Washington, Florida, Winnipeg, Toronto, New Jersey) and six of them on home ice, the opportunity to make a move is still there.
Tampa Bay let a chance slip last night, blowing a two goal lead and allowing the Caps to sneak out of the Forum with a point in the standings, still getting the two is the main thing right now.
"I think maybe down the road we'll care, but we just want to win games right now and we'll take them anyway we can get them,'' the NHL's leading goal scorer Steven Stamkos told the Tampa Tribune, "We certainly are not complaining that we gave Washington one point tonight. And we have some other teams to catch as well so we are going to take every point that we can get.''
The Lightning have a pair of tracks to the playoffs. The preferred would be winning the Southeast Division. By virtue of winning your division, you're guaranteed no worse than the third seed in the playoffs. Washington currently owns the top spot in the division, leading the Lightning by 8 points. Florida is a point behind the Capitals while Winnipeg is four points back. The Caps and Panthers go head-to-head tonight.
Tampa Bay also finds themselves 8 points out on their second track to the playoffs - the eighth and final spot. Within this track, there's several more teams Tampa Bay needs to worry about.
The Lightning are among six teams (including Washington - who would win the division if the season ended today) within 9 points of three playoff spots (one being the Southeast automatic qualifier).
The current 7th seeded New Jersey Devils had lost three straight games before rallying to beat the Rangers last night. Toronto is beginning to come out of a slump, winning two of their last three and getting a point in their shootout loss to Pittsburgh.
The Caps did well to battle back for a point last night against the Lightning but Washington has lost three of five. The Panthers are reeling a bit, with just two wins in their past nine games while Winnipeg broke out of a slump last night with a shootout victory over Philadelphia. Before that game, they had lost seven of nine.
It's a good recipe for the Bolts that they're surging as the teams in front of them are slumping. Don't look down though, the Lightning are just a loss or two from dropping like a stone back to the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
The next ten games should tell us a lot in regards to the Lightning's playoff hopes. With seven of those ten being on home ice, Tampa Bay could really make a move up the mountain...or see their hopes dashed upon the rocks.