Lightning Show Early Signs of Improvement

The Tampa Bay Lightning are just nine games into the 2017-18 NHL regular season but sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 7-1-1 record and 15 points. While there is a lot of hockey left to play, one thing is blatantly apparent through nine games — the Lightning are playing like a far different team than this time last year.

Steven Stamkos leads the league with 18 points (including 15 assists) and Nikita Kucherov is pacing all goal scorers with 10, while just two points behind Stamkos, with 16. The chemistry between Stamkos and Kucherov is quite clear, but Vladislav Namestnikov has rounded out that line well.

Vladislav Namestnikov (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The winger, who was once considered the player the Lightning might lose in expansion to the Vegas Golden Knights, has three goals and seven assists through nine games. To put that into perspective, he had 28 points in 74 contests all of last season.

But the improved play of the Lightning doesn’t stop at the first line. The team has had offensive contributions from all lines, found more effective combinations on defense than this time last year, and received timely saves from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Nine games into last season, the Lightning were 5-4-0 but despite the winning record, the team had a far different feel from it than this year’s version. Let’s take a closer look at some ways that this year’s team is different and why this matters for the long term.

Playing From Ahead

The Lightning have scored the first goal seven times in their first nine games this season. Last year’s team allowed opponents to strike first six times in the same span.

Playing from behind, among other things, was an Achilles Heel for the Lightning last season. They often found themselves digging out of a hole, whether it be due to a careless turnover or defensive lapse in their own end.

Brayden Point was a big contributor for the Lightning in his rookie season. (Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Lightning score first this year, they boast a 6-1 record. Their only loss came in a one-sided game against the Florida Panthers during their second outing of a season. While that game looked familiar when compared to last season — they gave up 48 shots and the 5-4 score was not indicative of being played that closely — it also seemed to give the team the wake-up call they needed just two days into the new campaign.

By scoring the first goal, the Lightning are not playing on the offensive (being forced to play “catch-up”) and are able to continue to play their style. It also allows them to dictate the play and gives them the chance to start a game with momentum.

Scoring More Goals

The Lightning aren’t just scoring first more often, they are also tallying more goals, period. Through nine games, they have scored 36 goals and yielded just 24. Last season’s team registered 27 goals for and 29 goals against in the same span.

Nikita Kucherov (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

While Kucherov paces the team with 10 goals, 12 other players have markers for the Lightning — including Mikhail Sergachev (three) and Slater Koekkoek (2), whom each have scored a pair of goals in a game this season. Besides Sergachev and Koekkoek, the Lightning have received goals on the backend from Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

When Stamkos has just three goals and the Lightning still have 36 through nine games, it’s a sign that the team is receiving offensive contributions from up and down the lineup. It’s seemingly only a matter of time before Stamkos begins to find the back of the net — a scary thing to consider for the league’s 30 other teams given the Lightning’s offensive output in the early going.

Timely Goaltending

Vasilevskiy has given the Lightning the strong goaltending that allows them to take more chances offensively and the team is taking advantage of it.

He opened the season by going 3-1 in his first four starts, despite posting a save percentage of .900 and goals-against average of nearly 3.75. He was making some big saves, even if it wasn’t exactly clear from his personal stats. As a 23-year-old NHL starting goaltender, Vasilevskiy is always working to improve but he also knows that wins and losses are what matter at this level. Three wins in four contests was what the Lightning needed for a strong start.

Andrei Vasilevskiy (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Over the past four games, he’s been nearly unstoppable, posting four wins while compiling a .967 SV% and allowing just a goal per game. This included a 43-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road and a follow-up performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins where he yielded just one goal.

Vasilevskiy robbed Penguins forward Carl Hagelin near the end of the first period, in what was then a 2-0 game. It was save that was credited by head coach Jon Cooper and many of Vasilevskiy’s teammates as helping to set the tone for the final 40 minutes of play.

Looking Ahead This Week

The 2017-18 NHL regular season is young, but the Lightning have a lot of success early on and are playing like a much different team than they did last year.

They play the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday for the first time this season — a team that is better than their 3-2-1 record reflects. From there, the Lightning return home for tough match-ups against the Detroit Red Wings (Thursday) and Anaheim Ducks (Saturday).

The Lightning defeated the Red Wings 3-2 earlier this season in Detroit, and despite the the Red Wings’ point in their partial “rebuilding phase”, these games always have a bit of a playoff-like atmosphere for both teams.

Corey Perry scoring
Corey Perry (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Ducks will give the Lightning their first look at a Western Conference opponent and a more physical style. They are 3-3-1 this season and have struggled to find the back of the net, tallying just 18 goals, but their playing style is one the Lightning do not see as much of in the Eastern Conference.

After a 7-1 victory over the Penguins on Oct. 21, the Lightning have a lot of confidence but the three-game stretch ahead gives them a chance to collect six more points as they close out the first three weeks of the regular season.