4 Reasons the Tampa Bay Lightning Have Dominated the N.H.L. Express News
LOS ANGELES — At the midway point of the N.H.L. season, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in a position that is pleasantly familiar: the top of the league.
Tampa Bay’s 66 points are the most in the N.H.L., as its 61 points were at the same time last season. But the Lightning’s dominance this season is stark. Entering Friday’s games, they are 12 points better than the next-best teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Western Conference-leading Calgary Flames.
In a league where nine teams have a point percentage above .700 in their last 10 games, Tampa Bay (32-7-2) has managed to be the hottest club. The Lightning have earned points in 16 games in a row, with winning streaks of eight and seven games flanking an overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference power. The Lightning have not lost in regulation since Nov. 27. They outscored opponents by 81-48 during that span and have a league-leading goal differential of plus-55.
“You add in the skill set, you add in the leadership qualities that are within this room, it’s one of the best I’ve ever played with,” said Steven Stamkos, an 11-year veteran with the Lightning. “You put all those things together, and you don’t get complacent. Especially when you’re on a stretch like this. We want to win every night. We have that belief that no matter what happens, if we’re down a goal or two early, we’re going to find a way.”
Here are four reasons for the Lightning’s first-half success.
Over their past 16 contests, the Lightning have averaged more than five goals per game. Their 4.17 goals per game this season are more than a goal above the league average. They lead the N.H.L. with 174 goals, 43 power-play goals and 131 even-strength goals.
At the center of it all is right wing Nikita Kucherov, 25, who has seven straight multipoint games and 69 points over all. He has posted four or more points in three of his last five games, including Thursday’s 6-2 drubbing of the Los Angeles Kings.
“When you’re feeling the way he is confidence-wise, everything looks so simple for him and almost elegant out there because of how gracefully he’s moving the puck and skating,” said Stamkos, the team captain. “He’s a guy that makes the game look really easy when the things that he’s doing are really hard.”
Stamkos, 28, who twice led the N.H.L. in goals, scored 14 in December, the most prolific month of his 11-season career. His 23 goals are tied for the team lead with his fellow center Brayden Point, 22, whose role continues to expand. Point has been playing with Kucherov this season while matching up against top opposing centers defensively.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t cheat the game,” Stamkos said of Point. “That’s why he creates so many offensive chances, because he’s always in the right spot. Him and Kuch have been so dynamic out there.”
The Lightning’s fortunes did not flag despite the lengthy absences of their Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, Victor Hedman, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has started only 21 of the team’s 41 games. Defenseman Anton Stralman also missed 17 games, and forward J.T. Miller is currently week-to-week with an upper-body injury.
While Hedman was less than 100 percent, the former Ranger Ryan McDonagh, 29, shouldered a heavy load and has recaptured his peak form.
“For me, I’m not playing as much as I did last year, and hopefully that’s going be good in the long term,” said Hedman, 28. “I always want to be playing a lot, but at the same time, part of being a good teammate is about buying into everything. Mac has really stepped in and done a great job. He’s phenomenal defensively, and he’s very good at skating up the ice, joining the play and creating odd-man rushes.”
Tampa Bay brims with talent across its ranks, thanks in large part to former General Manager Steve Yzerman, who stepped down in September for family reasons. Julien BriseBois, a lawyer-turned-N.H.L. executive, assumed control with Yzerman remaining on as a consultant.
The overall depth of the Lightning organization and the versatility of its forwards have enabled Coach Jon Cooper to use a variety of lineup configurations. Young forwards like Adam Erne and Anthony Cirelli have cemented themselves as full-time players and frequent contributors. On the blue line, the Lightning have used eight defensemen, seven on a consistent basis. That has often meant rotating four defensemen, including three veterans, into three spots.
“Guys want to play in games, but you communicate with them what our plan is,” Cooper said. “You sit there and say, ‘Well, you could play all 82 games or wind up playing 74.’ Those six to eight games you may miss during the year, does that help you come springtime? There’s no real downside to that.”
He added: “I truly believe that part of why we’ve had the start we’ve had is because of the unselfishness of the players.”
Depth and unselfishness were on display Thursday against the Kings. The fourth line produced two goals. Stamkos passed up two prime shots from the left slot, and his extra passes lead to tap-in goals for Kucherov and Point.
As successful as the Lightning have been this season, they are focused on the spring. They have consistently been a playoff team in recent years but have not won a Stanley Cup since 2004.
They lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Cup finals, and as the top seed in the East last season, they fell in the conference finals in seven games to the Washington Capitals, the eventual champion. After leading that series by three games to two, the Lightning lost Games 6 and 7 as Stamkos, Kucherov and Point were held scoreless.
This time last season, the Lightning began to drag, allowing the Boston Bruins to catch them at one point in the division race. Nashville and Winnipeg eventually passed Tampa Bay in the final league standings. Seeking to maximize their window for a championship, the Lightning made a big trade at the deadline, landing McDonagh and Miller from the Rangers.
BriseBois has said such a move is unlikely this season. The Lightning players and coaches are confident in their roster, and they consider themselves more prepared and motivated for the second half of the season than they were a year ago.
“It’s just a different feel this year with the veteran guys that we have and that bitter taste of ending the year disappointed last year,” Stamkos said. “I have no concerns about us taking our foot off the gas.”