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Difficult stretch awaits Lightning after All-Star Break

— The Tampa Bay Lightning hit this weekend’s All-Star break on a high note. Winners of 10 of their past 13 games, they are atop the Eastern Conference standings as the league takes a five-day hiatus starting today.

But despite a stellar 30-14-4 record, Tampa Bay is far from a perfect team.

That was the general assessment of team architect and general manager Steve Yzerman, who offered his perspective on several aspects of the Lightning season.

“I think in a lot of ways we can improve and we need to improve,’’ Yzerman said.

With Tuesday’s 4-1 victory against Vancouver, the Lightning tied the franchise record of eight consecutive home wins. At 19-4-1 at Amalie Arena, they are a dominant home team.

Away from home, well, they have been average, with an 11-10-3 road record.

“I think, collectively, we are a very young group and it’s difficult to win on the road in the NHL,’’ Yzerman said. “The more experience our young guys get going into these good teams and their buildings and playing these games, it’s a good experience. There are things that we have to do, that we have to go through.

“Generally all of these younger players over time responded well to all of the challenges. And the challenge of playing well on the road, I expect them all to improve.’’

That challenge is not going to get any easier when the season resumes Tuesday in Carolina.

The Lightning have played 48 games, more than all of the teams below them in the standings, and have a difficult stretch in February with 12 consecutive games against Western Conference opponents, including eight on the road. Tampa Bay plays Los Angeles, Anaheim and St. Louis twice each and has road games against Nashville and Dallas. The Lightning close February with a home game against Chicago.

Most of those teams are considered to be “heavy’’ teams that try to wear down opponents physically. The Lightning are considered a “light’’ team that can run into trouble against bigger teams.

To Yzerman, however, that notion is unwarranted.

“I want to be the team with the puck, and when you have the puck, it’s hard to hit guys,’’ he said. “I don’t see physical teams or teams taking runs at us as an issue at all. This league is not about running guys anymore. And the word heavy — that’s the word of the day in the NHL, heavy and light. Our guys play hard. I’m more worried about our special teams, honestly, then about playing heavy teams.’’

Yzerman has good reason to point to special teams as an area the Lightning need to clean up.

Overall, Tampa Bay’s power play is in the middle of the pack, entering Wednesday ranked 16th with an 18.4 percent success rate. But on the road, that dips to 15.7 percent. With 89 power-play chances on the road, second to the New York Islanders, the opportunities have been there. But despite a talented roster that forms the highest-scoring team in the league, the results have not been there on a consistent basis.

The road penalty kill has dipped deep into the bottom third of the league at 75.9 percent, ranked 25th, which is a far cry from the Lightning’s 89 percent penalty kill at home, tops in the league heading into Wednesday.

“We have had our ups and downs with special teams,’’ Yzerman said. “I think that our penalty kill has stabilized and we have been much better recently. But we need our power play to get consistently scoring, particularly on the road.

“When your special teams are good, you tend to get more points. And when they are not, it’s generally tough to win on the road.’’

 

AHL ALL-STARS: Syracuse left wing Jonathan Marchessault will replace defenseman Nikita Nesterov, who is on recall with the Lightning, at the American Hockey League All-Star game Monday in Utica, New York. Marchessault leads the Crunch with 36 points. Also, fans voted center Vladislav Namestnikov a starter for the Eastern Conference. He has eight goals and 18 points in 18 games with Syracuse.

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