The Tampa Bay Lightning seek to extend their four-game winning streak when they face the Dallas Stars on Thursday. Through 18 games, the Lightning boast a 14-2-2 record and sit atop the NHL standings.
It’s a far different place than the Lightning were at this point last year.
Last season, the Lightning needed 27 games to reach the 30-point mark. They’ve gotten there in 18 contests in this campaign.
Last season, they lost Steven Stamkos for the year in just their 17th game. Right now, he’s pacing all NHL players with 31 points and his chemistry with linemate Nikita Kucherov (who has scored 30 points) has been magical.
Last season, Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy were sharing Tampa Bay’s crease, and Bishop’s future was uncertain. This year, Vasilevskiy is the clear-cut No. 1 and his 13 wins lead the league. His only regulation loss came in the second game of the season.
The Lightning are also benefitting from a longer offseason than they’ve had in four years — allowing the roster to come in to a new season healthy.
But what else about this Lightning team is behind their franchise-best start?
It’s no secret that Stamkos and Kucherov lead the Lightning’s offensive attack. But two players cannot do it all themselves — especially over the course of an 82-game regular season.
Perhaps the most telling statistic for the Lightning: Nine players have 10 points or more, including defensemen Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev.
With head coach Jon Cooper’s decision to roll 11 forwards and seven defensemen on a nightly basis, this brings an added dimension to the Lightning. Vladislav Namestnikov, who has played wing alongside Stamkos and Kucherov, has 19 points in 18 games. The second line for the Lightning, made up of Yanni Gourde, Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point has combined to score 15 goals and 24 assists. Alex Killorn, who plays regularly with Tyler Johnson, has tallied 13 points of his own.
But beyond that, the Lightning are receiving offense from other places on the roster. The team’s defense corps has combined to score 12 goals and 34 assists.
In Sunday’s 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks, it was the team’s fourth line that answered the call. Ryan Callahan forechecked and forced a steal by Chris Kunitz who fed a puck to J.T. Brown who potted the game-winning goal.
Stamkos and Kucherov help set the tone offensively, but the supporting cast is crucial to the team’s success.
Improved Team Defense
The Lightning are playing an improved game defensively across the roster and reaping the benefits of it.
They are scoring nearly four goals per game but are yielding just 2.5 goals-against — second in the league. This is a combination of a few things. Forwards who are patrolling their own end better, defensemen who are minimizing quality scoring chances and Vasilevskiy’s timely goaltending when there are any.
The Lightning have allowed less than 30 shots on goal five times in their past 10 games. In Sunday’s game against the Ducks, they’d allowed just 14 shots on goal through 40 minutes. Then, when the Ducks made a push in the third period, the Ducks found the back of the net just once in 15 shots on Vasilevskiy, who had a handful of big saves to preserve the victory.
Although the Lightning have resorted to the 11/7 lineup, the team’s defensive pairings have been pretty consistent. Hedman and Jake Dotchin form the top pair, Anton Stralman and Sergachev slot in at the No. 3 and 4 spots and Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn round out the last combination.
These combinations give the Lightning three effective pairs of defenseman. Last season before Dotchin’s call-up to the Lightning, after the Hedman-Stralman pairing there was a sharp drop-off.
The Performance of New Pieces
The biggest additions for the Lightning this offseason were Girardi, Kunitz and Sergachev. Through 18 games, each of these players is filling out their respective roles, perhaps better than even general manager Steve Yzerman expected.
Girardi, 33, has added to the team’s defense through his physical play, shot-blocking ability and positioning. While many in the analytics community were harsh on Girardi’s numbers in recent years, there is no measurement for heart or grit and the leadership impact he has on younger players like Sergachev. He’s also playoff tested, with 122 postseason contests to his credit. He’s been a reliable to the bottom-pair through the first quarter of the regular season.
Kunitz has been a major upgrade on the team’s fourth line and has continued to do the things that have made him the player he’s been throughout his career. He’s 38-years-old but plays his role well and can chip in offensively. He’s got four Stanley Cup rings and was never the guy on those Cup-winning teams (look at who his teammates were). But he crashes the net, is hard to play against and has been a valuable piece of the successful teams he’s played on — which is why was one reason he was sought after by the Lightning. He’s tallied five points this season, including the assist on Brown’s game-winner on Sunday.
Sergachev is just 19 years old but is playing like a player who has been in the league longer than 18 games. It’s all the more impressive when you consider his position and the expectations from the outside after he was traded for Jonathan Drouin this offseason. His 12 points are second to Hedman on the Lightning and he’s not afraid to shoot the puck. He’s also playing a pretty positionally sound game and benefits from being paired with Stralman.
The Lightning are on top of the league and benefitting from a healthy roster that’s firing on all cylinders right now. The three-game road trip to California highlighted the team’s strengths and how it was built by Yzerman, resulting in three wins and six points.
But during an 82-game season, there will be ups and downs and losing four out of every 18 games is not realistic. The Lightning have done a good job of bouncing back from a couple of poor outings earlier this season, but there will be many tests over the next 64 contests. What will determine the course of the regular season is if the team can stay healthy and how they are able to rise to challenges they face.
For now though, Yzerman and Co. have to feel good about how all the pieces of the roster are coming together at once and the results up to this point. But despite the success so far, it’s about moving forward and that continues against Bishop and the Stars on Thursday night.