NHL on NBC: Lightning prepared for busy, challenging February schedule

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Saturday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers. Regionalized coverage begins at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The Tampa Bay Lightning came out of their bye week/All-Star break quite flat during a 4-2 defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday Night Hockey. It’s not the start they wanted, especially as they enter a busy February with 15 games on tap.

It won’t just be a busy second month of 2019 for the NHL-best Lightning, it will also be a challenging one. Of their 15 games this month, eight are against teams currrently in a playoff position, like Friday night’s 1-0 shootout win over the New York Islanders. After Saturday’s date with the Rangers, they play six of seven at home, but have to take on the likes of the Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights, a rebounding St. Louis Blues team, and the Calgary Flames.

It’s the kind of schedule that challenges a team like the Lightning to maintain the level they’ve played at all season long.

“It’s always fun to play in these kind of games,” said defenseman Victor Hedman after Friday’s morning skate on Long Island. “A lot of hockey to be played against some great teams. It’s a big month for us for we’ve got to make sure that we’re firing on all cylinders, really tuning up our game.”

[WATCH LIVE – REGIONALIZED COVERAGE BEGINS AT 8 P.M. ET – NBC]

What’ll help the Lightning in the second half as they pursue their first Presidents’ Trophy and prepare for what they hope is a Stanley Cup run in the spring is they’re a veteran group. Eleven players were on the roster during the 2015 Cup Final. It’s not a young team that has never experienced success and has had to keep up a level of play while carrying a target on their backs.

“We’ve been here before,” Hedman said. “We’re looking to improve every year, improve as a group, and as individuals. What’s stood out the most this year is just the consistency we’ve played with. You’re never satisfied until you win the whole thing. But there’s a lot of hockey to be played.”

Head coach Jon Cooper has been through this before with his team. They played 15 games in November as well and went 10-5-0 playing practically every other day. This busy month also features four back-to-backs. They have an ample cushion in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, but these games could serve them well come playoff time.

“This will be a test for us down the stretch here, especially with all these condensed games,” said Cooper. “This is probably something we’re going to need here.”

Kenny Albert (play-by-play) will have the call alongside Olczyk and McGuire from Madison Square Garden in New York. Liam McHugh hosts studio coverage on Saturday night on NBC alongside analysts Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

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