The Tampa Bay Lightning are 3-0 to start the season and will look for their fourth win against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday. The Lightning need the victory to continue the team’s momentum as they prepare to begin a six-game road trip over the course of 11 days starting on Oct. 22 against the Ottawa Senators.
On a roster made up of nearly the same players as 2015-16, head coach Jon Cooper and the Lightning are familiar with a 3-0 start and the importance of winning the fourth game. Last season, the team rattled off three wins to open the season, including a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers in the NHL’s first official three-on-three overtime, before dropping the fourth game to the Detroit Red Wings and beginning an unexpected early spiral.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is happy with where the Lightning are now when compared to last year’s team through three games.
“We know where we’re at, and we like our team. There’s no question,” Cooper said after the Lightning’s 4-3 shooutout win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. “I remember that 3-0 compared to this 3-0 and who knows what’s going to happen after this, but this 3-0 we’re in a better spot right now as a team than we were in last year’s 3-0. It was a little bit of smoke and mirrors in last year’s 3-0.”
A Look at Last Year’s ‘3-0’ Team
In 2015-16, the Lightning opened the season with three wins by scoring 13 times and allowing just six in games against the Flyers, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins — two of which did not make the playoffs at season’s end. The Lightning’s four goals per game average looked good on paper but was a false sense of where the team was offensively as behind the scenes, the team was battling injuries to key players, the uncertainty of Steven Stamkos’ future and a trade request by Jonathan Drouin.
When the Lightning lost to the Red Wings on Oct. 13, it was the first of 10 losses in 15 games through Nov. 12. The team lost five one-goal games (including a shootout loss) and lost by a three-goal margin just twice. But it was the lack of offensive production that caused the Lightning to slide early. The team was shutout in three contests and scored just one goal five times.
Some attributed the team’s slow start to a deep run in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs, and this is right to some extent. Tyler Johnson was playing with a broken wrist he suffered in the playoffs, which limited his offensive production before he healed up in January. Ondrej Palat was also off to a slow start before he suffered a lower-body injury on Nov. 9, but collectively, the team was not playing like the same one that came just two games from winning a Stanley Cup just months before.
When Palat went down with the injury, he voiced frustration about the Lightning’s streak but was positive about the outlook for the club.
“We can’t score goals. We’re not winning as much as we want. We still have a good team, [a] lot of talent,” Palat said at the time, according to NHL.com.
The start to 2015-16 is one the Lightning worked hard to overcome as they battled for a favorable playoff position at the end of the regular season. The team overcame it and went all the way to the 2016 Eastern Conference Final, but the path would have been easier if not for injuries and struggles out of the gate to start the season.
A Look at This Year’s ‘3-0’ Team
The first three games of 2016-17 have pitted the Lightning against a Panthers team that should compete for the Atlantic Division crown this year and potential playoff teams in the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.
The Lightning have scored 14 goals (one of which being a shootout goal that does not count towards individual statistics) and given up nine. While the team is giving up an average of three goals per game, goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop have made big saves in key moments for the Lightning — the type of stops that allow a team like the Lightning to play more of the fast-paced offense that is the catalyst for the team’s success.
The team is also healthy and free from the distractions it faced through most of last season. All signs point to Johnson and Palat being healthy, Stamkos’ future is not up in the air anymore and Jonathan Drouin is happy in a Lightning uniform. Bishop also looks to be fully healed from last postseason’s injury. While injuries are part of the game and will almost certainly test the Lightning, be it small or large, at some point this season, the team is in a very good position entering Thursday’s game against the Avalanche.
“We’ve played one marginal period out of nine to start the season. We’ve had a chance to win every single game and we have,” Cooper said after Tuesday’s game. “Then in the period where we weren’t playing too well, our goalie (Bishop) came up big when we needed him and that’s what you need. And that’s why we are a team and that’s why it’s a team sport. And everybody’s got to contribute.”
Despite the team’s success through three games, Cooper stressed the importance of not letting up as the Lightning take on the Avalanche.
“Now we’ve got to push…push…because if memory serves me correct, we didn’t win game four last year,” Cooper said on Tuesday.
The team’s ability to push through against the Avalanche can be the sort of win that sets the tone for the Lightning’s six-game road trip and leads to the invaluable start the team lacked last season as they look to make another deep playoff run this year.