Under normal circumstances, the first couple of weeks of the regular season would not be that big of a deal for the Lightning. It has played only three games, hardly enough to start circling games on the calendar as must-win or even important. Again, under normal circumstances.

These are not normal circumstances.

The lockout that put the NHL season on pause has put it on fast forward. Don't think of it as three games into a long season. This isn't early October. This isn't the first few warmup steps into a marathon.

It's already late January. Or, here's a better, more accurate way to think of it: The Lightning is down to 45 games left, and it is one of 15 teams crammed together in the standings. The sprint to the playoffs begins now.

And make no mistake, the next five games, all at home, are a very big deal.

Here's why they matter so much and how the Lightning has looked so far, albeit only three games into this shortened season.

Quick start is critical

Barry Melrose, a former Lightning coach, was coaching the Kings during the last 48-game season, in 1995. The Kings were two seasons removed from the Stanley Cup final and still had superstars Wayne Gretzky, Rick Tocchet and Jari Kurri.

They started the season 3-4-1, fell behind the playoff pack and never caught up. The Kings finished a point out of the playoffs, and Melrose lost his job.

"You've got to get out of the gate hot,'' Melrose said. "You can't lose games out of the gate or you'll never make them up. You've just got to be so good right away. The teams that do that are the ones that are going to make the playoffs.''