If Tuesday night’s game against the New York Islanders was a test, the Tampa Bay Lightning certainly passed.
After dropping the team’s third straight game on Sunday — a 6-1 loss dominated by the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden — head coach Jon Cooper called how the Lightning would respond “a test” just nine games into 2016-17.
Passing the ‘Test’
From the opening faceoff at Barclays Center, the Lightning looked like a different team than the one who played less than six miles away two nights before. They controlled the puck and dictated the play early, tallying three goals, including two on the power play, in the first 13:34 of the game. It was just the second time the team had scored in the first period all season long.
The Lightning also looked stronger defensively — a sharp contrast from their game against the Rangers. Slater Koekkoek made his season debut and registered two assists and was a plus-two in 13:12 of ice time. Ben Bishop was largely untested early in the contest, but made some big stops during the game and finished with 26 saves on 27 shots.
“Sometimes it just takes a spark,” Steven Stamkos said after the game, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. “It takes an embarrassing loss or a tough stretch. You’re going to have tough stretches like that. It’s how you can respond to that. In the scheme of it, it’s one game. But it was what we wanted.”
The victory was just one game in an 82-game season, but brought the Lightning back into second place in the Atlantic Division with a 6-4-0 record. More importantly, it could be the sort of performance the Lightning needed before they play four of their next five games at home.
The Importance of the 1-Month Mark
The next five games will bring the Lightning to the one-month mark of 2016-17 — an important milestone in the NHL during the regular season and one that can be a good indicator of a team’s trajectory in any given year.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie talked about the importance of the first month of the season for an NHL team during his podcast, TSN Hockey’s Bobcast, on Friday.
“Pay no attention to anything that happens in the first two weeks of the regular season, because it very well could be a mirage,” McKenzie said. “Now, after three weeks, take note of what’s happened, and after the fourth week, book it. What you see, with most teams anyway, is what you get.”
McKenzie added that there are obvious exceptions to this — using the Montreal Canadiens’ hot start to 2015-16 and the season-ending injury to goaltender Carey Price that put them out of the playoffs by season’s end, as an example.
For the most part, however, a team’s performance during the first month is a fairly reliable indicator of where they will be at the end of the regular season.
“Anecdotally speaking, six or seven (teams) in each conference that are in a playoff spot after four weeks, usually end up there at the end of the year,” McKenzie said.
The Next 5 Games
The Lightning will face tough opponents in each of the team’s next five games, but must take advantage of the opportunity to play four of those games on home ice. Here’s a look at the road ahead as the team approaches an important part of this young season.
Nov. 3 — vs. Boston Bruins
The Boston Bruins come to Tampa on Thursday in a battle between Atlantic Division teams that have built-up somewhat of a rivalry dating back to the 2011 Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins enter the contest with a 5-4-0 record and are fifth in the Atlantic Division.
They have battled injuries to starting goaltender Tuukka Rask and star forward Patrice Bergeron early in the season, among others, but Rask is back in the lineup and playing well. Thursday’s game will also mark the return of forward David Pastrnak after serving a two-game suspension. It will be important for the Lightning to come out of the gate strong, as the Bruins play a physical style and a Lightning win would give the team some momentum moving forward.
Nov. 5 — vs. New Jersey Devils
The Lightning will host the New Jersey Devils on Saturday in the third contest between the clubs just 12 games into the season. The teams have split the first two games, as the Lightning took the first one 3-2 at home on Oct. 15, but lost to the Devils 3-1 on Oct. 29.
The Devils made waves this offseason when they sent defenseman Adam Larsson to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for forward Taylor Hall. Through eight games this season, Hall has tallied five goals and leads the Devils with seven points.
The X-factor for the Devils is starting goaltender Cory Schneider. The 30-year-old has started seven games and is 4-2-1 with a 1.86 goals against average and a .941 save percentage. Schneider stopped 32 of 33 shots he faced and he has been a key to the team’s 4-2-2 start to 2016-17. The Lightning must test Schneider often (i.e., 30-plus shots) because anything less will make beating the Devils tough.
Nov. 7 — vs. Florida Panthers
The Lightning will make the short trip down to Sunrise to face the Florida Panthers for the second time this season.
The Panthers have quickly put together one of the best teams in the Atlantic Division, despite currently sitting seventh in the Atlantic Division with a 4-5-0 record. The team has a strong mix of young players and character veterans and has also seen significant contributions early on from former Lightning forward, Jonathan Marchessault, who signed with the Panthers as a free agent this offseason.
During their first matchup on Oct. 18, the two teams played each other well, but the Panthers took a 3-2 lead during a strong third period. Stamkos netted the game-tying goal with just six seconds left to play and rookie Brayden Point scored the game-winner in the sixth round of the shootout. It was a big win for the Lightning, as it gave the team its second straight 3-0 start to a season.
The Lightning and Panthers have long dubbed these games as a rivalry, and although they have played good games, it never fully came to life because neither team was very competitive at the same time as the other. Fast forward to the present day, however, and these games have become everything the franchises hoped they would become.
Nov. 10 — vs. New York Islanders
The Islanders will come to Tampa to faceoff against the Lightning and will be playing with something to prove after their performance on home ice on Tuesday. The Islanders are off to a 4-6-0 start to the season, but are a better team than their early record reflects.
The Lightning played the Islanders in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs — the Isles’ first appearance in the second round of the postseason since 1993 — and they expect to build off of that this season. The Islanders have struggled early on as they have juggled goaltending duties between Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. After Halak’s agent questioned the team’s approach earlier this season, the netminder is now considered to be on the trading block.
If the Lightning can replicate the sort of play they had on Tuesday, this will be a tough game for the Islanders, but expect a much better game from captain John Tavares and his team this time around.
Nov. 12 — vs. San Jose Sharks
The San Jose Sharks are out to a 6-4-0 start after falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final. The Sharks and Lightning will meet for the first of two games during the regular season and it will be a good opportunity for the Lightning to face one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
The Sharks have their sights set on a return to the Stanley Cup Final and are among a small handful of teams that are early favorites to get there. The Lightning have similar expectations in the Eastern Conference, which will help to make this game a great matchup between two teams that do not play each other often.
Sharks forward Joe Pavelski leads the team with 11 points and defenseman Brent Burns is playing some of the best hockey of his career in the last year of his contract. The Sharks play a fast-paced style like the Lightning and boast one of the best defensive units in the league. This will be a big test for the Lightning just 15 games into the season.
Passing More ‘Tests’
The Lightning were able to overcome the Islanders on Tuesday and finish a six-game road trip with a 3-3 record. They got there on Tuesday by doing the things that make them one of the league’s top teams — playing a fast-paced style that dictates the play, scoring a couple of power play goals and putting together 60 good minutes of hockey. The team also controlled the puck which lead to registering 37 shots on goal. These are all things they will need to continue to do as they look to be at the top of the Atlantic Division at the one-month mark of the season.
A strong start to the first 30 days of the season is hardly a guarantee of what is to come, but it can be a fairly reliable sign of where a team is headed. The Lightning passed the first test on Tuesday, but there are many more to come.