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Bolts Bits: Lightning not satisfied with superb start

Defenseman Jake Dotchin day-to-day while forward Cedric Paquette gets closer to a return

by Bryan Burns /

If you told Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point the Bolts would be 15-3-2 through the first 20 games of the season, he'd take that, right?

"Oh, absolutely," Point answered. "I think any team in the League would take that if they were given that option before the (season) started."

Are the Lightning, however, satisfied with their start?

"I don't really think now that we're here, I don't think we're satisfied with that," Point responded. "I think we're happy with it, but we obviously want to play better and still learn and improve in all areas of the game."

Truth be told, the Lightning have plenty to be happy about with a quarter of the season complete. Tampa Bay leads the NHL for points (32), points percentage (.800) and goal differential (+28) and are tied for first for wins (15) and goals (79). The Lightning lead the League for goals per game (3.95). They're fourth in the League for goals against per game at 2.55. No other NHL team ranks in the top seven in both of those categories.

Tampa Bay's special teams are just as, well, special. The Lightning power play paces the NHL at 28 percent. The penalty kill is ninth and climbing, having recently gone seven-straight games without allowing an opponent power-play goal, one game from matching the Lightning all-time franchise record.

A look at the individual leaders in the NHL shows a Tampa Bay sweep.

Top scorer? Steven Stamkos

Most goals? Nikita Kucherov

Most assists? Stamkos

Best plus/minus? Anton Stralman

Goalie wins? Andrei Vasilevskiy

With so much going right for the Lightning so far this season, what could they possibly need to improve?

Video: Point | Post-Practice"Just little things," Point said. "In video after every game, there's always things, different plays, things we could have done better. Every game is like that. We never stop learning. I think our focus is just little plays like that, kind of all assets of the game."

The previous two seasons, the Lightning staggered out of the gate and had to make up ground over the second half of the campaign. In 2015-16, they were able to rebound in time to qualify for the playoffs and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Final for the second-straight season.

Last season, a furious rally over the final two months wasn't enough to overcome the poor start.

If nothing else this season, the Lightning have put themselves in a prime position to return to the postseason with their scintillating start.

"As we were front and center last year of seeing how hard it is to catch up even if you have a remarkable February, March and April, it's tough to get in," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "You never want to slow down, but when you've banked these points, now teams are constantly having to chase you instead of you having to chase them. It's a much more comforting spot to be in, but you still look and there's a lot of mileage left, 60-plus games. As I said, you've got to keep munching points, but all in all, I've got to tip my hat to the guys. It's been a great first quarter."

Video: Cooper on state of Bolts through 20 gamesINJURY CONCERNS: Jake Dotchin missed his second-straight day of practice on Tuesday, and Cooper said the Bolts' first pair blueliner is day-to-day.

"He dinged himself up a little bit," Cooper said. "I'm not sure if he's going to be available (Wednesday). We'll see in the morning."
Dotchin had begun asserting himself more offensively in recent games, scoring his first career NHL goal November 8 at San Jose and tallying goal No. 2 three games later versus Dallas.

Tyler Johnson returned to the practice ice for Tuesday's session after sitting out Monday with a body-maintenance day. Cooper said he should be okay for the marquee matchup against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"It's getting that time, 20 games in and bodies are slowly starting to wear down a little bit, so you've got to manage the guys," Cooper said.

Cedric Paquette practiced with his teammates for the second-straight day and appears to be closer to returning from the upper-body injury that has kept him out of the last 13 games.

DAN THE MAN: Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, a free agent pickup in the offseason, often does a lot of the not-so-glamorous work that goes unnoticed on the scoresheet.

But it doesn't get missed by his teammates.

Girardi has settled in alongside Braydon Coburn on the Lightning's third pair to solidify the back end of the Bolts blueline. He leads the Lightning for blocked shots and ranks seventh in the NHL. He's third on the Bolts for hits. And he's been a major contributor on a penalty kill that's gotten better and better each game.

"Anytime any of those situations - big hits, big blocks, big saves - some of those things that don't really show up in the box score, guys, especially you get into a good video session, guys really enjoy that," Cooper said.

The Lightning feed off of those underrated plays Girardi makes. His selflessness is contagious.

Point recalled Tampa Bay's game against Dallas when the Stars were on a 5-on-3 power play with a chance to tie the game, and Girardi spearheaded an important kill that sparked the Bolts' runaway victory. The Bolts ended up winning 6-1. If Dallas converted the 5-on-3, it's hard to tell what the outcome would have been.

"We've got a lot of guys that are willing to sacrifice their body for the team," Point said. "That's huge on a penalty kill. It's important in the 5-on-5, but on the penalty kill, it's so much bigger. You look at the Dallas game, the 5-on-3, Seguin takes a one-timer and Girardi gets down and blocks it and that might have saved a goal. Guys like that are huge."

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