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I am a contributing editor/writer/troublemaker for NBC's Pro Hockey Talk blog.
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Lightning need to make the most of upcoming home dates

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On one end of the schedule spectrum, you have teams merely looking to survive a tough stretch, with the Montreal Canadiens ranking high among them.

On the other end, you have teams that really need to thrive. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a prime example of that group.

It’s been a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of season for the Bolts, but their outlook could really change depending upon how they handle the next two weeks or so. (Or, you know, they can keep this pattern going by mixing wins and losses.)

Glance at the very promising opportunities the Lightning could enjoy:

Wednesday (Dec. 28): vs. Canadiens
Thursday (Dec. 29): vs. Maple Leafs
Saturday (Dec. 31): vs. Hurricanes
Jan. 3: vs. Jets
Jan. 5: vs. Predators
Jan. 7: at Flyers
Jan. 8: at Penguins
Jan. 12: vs. Sabres
Jan. 13: vs. Blue Jackets

That’s a five-game homestand and seven of nine games in Tampa Bay, a promising opportunity for a team that has played five more times on the road than at home so far in 2016-17.

Now, there’s no sense claiming that even a strong run would cure all of the Lightning’s ills.

For one thing, their schedule really lands itself to streaks. After all that home cooking, the Lightning face what could be a harrowing six-game road trip. Then they play four games at home, four on the road and another four at home.

With such erratic swings looming after this stretch, we may very well look back at these next couple weeks as a fork in the road for this up-and-down Lightning team.

The Canadiens ready for some bumps in the road starting this week

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Even with some recent stumbles, the Montreal Canadiens head into 2017 in a pretty strong position. Still, they’ll need to navigate some tough waters ahead.

It’s not just injuries that might prove a challenge to the Habs, either. Only the New York Islanders have enjoyed a friendlier home-to-road ratio so far in 2016-17, but that will “correct” itself in a harsh way soon.

Take a look at how the schedule breaks to end 2016 and begin 2017:

Wednesday (Dec. 28): at Lightning
Thursday (Dec. 29): at Panthers
Saturday (Dec. 31): at Penguins
Jan. 3: at Predators
Jan. 4: at Stars
Jan. 7: at Maple Leafs
Jan. 9: vs. Capitals
Jan. 11: at Jets
Jan. 12: at Wild

Considering the three back-to-back sets and the fact that they have just one home game in that bunch, there are some legitimate challenges in those couple weeks.

While there are some elements that do relieve the tension a bit – getting a break after New Year’s Eve – it’s still a pretty tough haul.

With so much focus on narratives that are a little more abstract – like chemistry – we often lose sight of the influence a schedule can have on a team’s fate, especially in a salary cap era of parity. We could learn a lot about this rendition of the Montreal Canadiens over the next two weeks.

The Lightning’s optimism took some serious hits on Friday

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The story of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2016-17 season often feels like “one step forward, two steps back.”

Thursday represented the step forward, and it even sort of felt it that way that night. Friday provided the two steps back: the Lightning dropped a humbling 4-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. The Bolts also left the game far less healthy, a significant bummer since injuries have already been an issue for the Lightning.

About the best news is that Victor Hedman seems like he’s OK after an injury scare.

Jonathan Drouin and Braydon Coburn may not have been so lucky. Both players were unable to return from their injuries on Friday, and as the Tampa Bay Times’ Roger Mooney reports, their outlooks are unclear at the moment.

So, the Lightning suffered an embarrassing loss and might have dealt with injury losses, too. Quite a way to sweep away the goodwill they were seemingly building just the night before.

One step forward, two steps back.

Matthews wins in Arizona return, Doan scores 400th goal in 1500th game

If you look at the standings alone, Friday’s Toronto Maple Leafs – Arizona Coyotes game is pretty insubstantial.

Instead, it was brimming with storylines as the Maple Leafs beat the Coyotes handily with a 4-1 score.

For one thing, Shane Doan became the sixth player to play 1,500 games with a single team, but that wasn’t the only milestone of the night for the Coyotes stalwart. He also scored the 400th goal of his career, as you can see in the video above.

That wasn’t all, though. Auston Matthews celebrated his first game against the Coyotes in Arizona by helping his team win, including setting up the first goal of the game:

Lots to digest in an otherwise “shrug” of a game, right?

Top guys: Blue Jackets continue dominance with 12th straight win

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The Columbus Blue Jackets cemented themselves as the No. 1 team in the Metropolitan Division and in the NHL on Friday.

By winning their 12th game in a row with a 2-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens, the Blue Jackets are more clearly seeing the benefits of their hot streak.

And, seriously, it’s been quite the run.

Here’s how the Metro looks at the moment:

1. Blue Jackets – 50 points in 32 games played
2. Penguins – 49 points in 35 GP
3. Rangers – 47 points in 36 GP
4. Capitals – 44 points in 32 GP
5. Flyers – 44 points in 36 GP

Columbus also finds itself on top of the NHL with those 50 points. The Chicago Blackhawks can tie things up with a win tonight, yet even then, the Blue Jackets will hold two games in hand. So, yeah, they’re the best team in the league right now.

As far as Thursday’s game went, it was a tight game where a lot of usual suspects came up big.

Sergei Bobrovsky made 36 out of 37 stops against the Canadiens, winning back-to-back games after allowing just a single goal in each contest. The scorers were also guys who have been generating points consistently for Columbus; Sam Gagner scored his 14th goal of 2016-17 while Brandon Saad nabbed his 13th. Nick Foligno generated two assists.

That’s the sort of work that the Blue Jackets are, dare we say, starting to expect from these guys. Even if it’s still a little shocking to see the wins keep pouring in.