The Tampa Bay Lightning's nine-day break has come to a close, and coach Jon Cooper said he feels his team survived its toughest test of the season.
"We knew from Christmas to the All-Star break was going to be a grind for us," Cooper said. "We just hoped that the practice time we put in up to that point was going to pay off during this stretch, and it did. We got contributions from everyone."
Tampa Bay was 18-13-4 at Christmas -- good for just fifth in the Eastern Conference wild-card standings - but a sizzling 11-2-0 run-up to the All-Star break has them in a good place.
The Lightning have moved into second place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Florida Panthers, and open their post-All-Star break play against the Stars in Dallas on Monday night.
Cooper likely will turn to red-hot goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who claimed his 10th straight victory in a 7-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 17. The All-Star, who owns an NHL-best 24 wins, can match the franchise record for consecutive wins, set last season by Louis Domingue, in Dallas.
Vasilevskiy nearly won the 2020 NHL All-Star Skills save streak competition on Friday night in St. Louis. The 25-year-old backstop turned away nine straight shots from the Metro Division side before hometown goalie Jordan Binnington of the Blues stuffed 10 consecutive from the Pacific Division to win the event.
Dallas built a six-game winning streak from Dec. 28 to Jan. 9 that boosted them from a wild-card spot to third in the Western Conference's Central Division, but the team lost three of four before the break, including a 7-0 pasting by the Minnesota Wild on Jan. 18.
The Stars still hold down the third spot in the Central, primarily due to the Winnipeg Jets' current four-game losing streak, and interim coach Rick Bowness could opt to start top goaltender Ben Bishop on Monday.
However, a good case could be made to go with backup Anton Khudobin.
Khudobin started in Dallas' 4-3 overtime win in Tampa on Dec. 19. He stood strong in a 45-save effort in Tampa, and Tyler Seguin scored the game-winner on an odd-man rush three minutes into overtime to beat the Lightning in that first meeting.
Despite gaining their fifth win in seven games, the Stars felt fortunate to win after being outshot 48-20 and dominated at times by the Lightning.
"We'll take it and run," Bowness said after the odd victory. "That's the worst game we've played for a while, so we'll take it and run. (Khudobin) was great."
Added Seguin of the Kazakhstani backstop: "He was a brick wall. I don't think we can say we deserved that win or even a point. He was incredible."
Seguin tops Dallas with 36 points, aided primarily by his 25 assists, and Alexander Radulov has contributed 28 points. Finnish forward Roope Hintz paces the way in goals with 15.
Bowness is 10-6-1 since taking over for former coach Jim Montgomery on Dec. 10.
--Field Level Media