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Burns: The highs, lows and surprises at mid-season

As the Bolts reach the halfway point of the regular season, beat writer Bryan Burns breaks down the key storylines of it all so far.

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning have reached the midpoint of the 2016-17 season.

Okay, so technically, Sunday's evening tilt in Pittsburgh was Tampa Bay's 42nd of the season, one game beyond the true midpoint.

But with three days off until the next game (Thursday at home versus Buffalo) and the Pittsburgh contest the second half of a back-to-back set, the current respite in the schedule provides perfect time to reflect on the first half of 2016-17.

The season certainly hasn't gone as well as the Lightning would like, but it's important to remember at this time last year, the Bolts were 20-17-4 after 41 games and occupied fifth place in the Atlantic Division, five points behind third place Montreal. That 2015-16 squad would go on to finish second in the Atlantic and advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

At 19-19-4 through 42 games, a nearly identical record to a year ago, the 2016-17 team is only four points behind third place Ottawa in the division.

So while the first half of the season hasn't been particularly promising, the precedent is there for Tampa Bay to rebound over the second half.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the major storylines that dominated the first half of 2016-17.

1st half MVP: Victor Hedman

Video: TBL@VAN: Hedman pots one-timer on feed from Filppula

Sure, you could make an argument for Nikita Kucherov as the best player on the Bolts over the first 42 games. After all, Kucherov leads the Lightning for goals (16) and scoring (39 points) and has yet to go more than two-consecutive games without a point this season.

But, as steady as Kucherov has been for Tampa Bay this season, Victor Hedman has been even more so.

With seven goals, 30 assists and 37 points so far, Hedman is putting up career numbers and would have to be in the running for the NHL's top defensemen over the first half of the season if such an award existed. Hedman currently leads all league blueliners for assists and ranks third among all players. He's second in the league in defenseman scoring, trailing only San Jose's Brent Burns (by two points as of this writing).

Beyond the gaudy offensive statistics, Hedman has been similarly spectacular in the defensive zone, his 6-foot-6 frame capable of effectively neutralizing opponents' attacks on sheer size alone. He paces the Lightning for blocked shots (69). On a team whose collective goal differential is minus-nine, Hedman is plus-one, all while logging the most average time on ice (24:38) and playing in all situations (he ranks second on the Bolts for average shorthanded TOI (2:41) and third for average power-play TOI (3:01).

Hedman is currently 12th in the NHL for average time on ice. The last time the Lightning had a player rank in the league's top 15 in that category? You have to go all the way back to the 2007-08 season, when Dan Boyle was second in NHL, averaging 27:24 per game but doing so in only 37 games.

Clearly, teams want to have their best player on the ice as much as possible, and for the Lightning, their best, at least through the season's first half, has been Hedman.

Biggest surprise: Brayden Point

Video: NJD@TBL: Point deflects in first career goal

When the Lightning entered training camp prior to the 2016-17 season, the roster had already pretty much taken shape.

James Wisniewski was in camp on a professional tryout, the Bolts hoping the veteran could add depth on the blue line and provide leadership to young defensemen like Andrej Sustr, Nikita Nesterov and Slater Koekkoek.

Cory Conacher signed with the team as a free agent over the summer and was trying to earn a spot with the NHL squad out of camp.

But few, if any, roster spots were available on a Lightning team returning nearly intact. That was especially the case at forward, where the Bolts enjoyed a plethora of proven options to round out their four lines.

There seemed to be little chance of a young prospect cracking through the glass ceiling and staying with the big club once the regular season started.

Brayden Point, however, was so impressive in camp and preseason games, he forced his way onto the opening night roster, in the process supplanting a pair of veterans in Conacher and Erik Condra, who were sent down to AHL Syracuse.

He wasn't satisfied just making the team though. Point established himself as one of Tampa Bay's most consistent performers over the first half of the season. He ranks tied for fifth on the team for assists and 10th for scoring, ahead of established players like Brian Boyle, Cedric Paquette and J.T. Brown. After showing he could be counted on to contribute on the wing, he was moved to his natural center position to take better advantage of his talent, where he continued to thrive.

An upper-body injury suffered December 28 has sidelined Point until late January/early February, but even four to six weeks out can't derail what has been an impactful, somewhat unexpected rookie season from the 20 year old.

Second-biggest surprise: The power play

Video: WPG@TBL: Kucherov bats home PPG

Improving from a 15.8 percent success rate (tied for 26th in the NHL) last season to 23.5 percent and second in the league so far in 2016-17, the power play has been the one consistent performer in a season filled with inconsistency for the Lightning.

The addition of assistant coach Todd Richards during the offseason has proven invaluable to this special teams unit, the veteran coach able to tweak the power play enough to give the Lightning a legitimate chance to score every time the opposition is hit with a penalty.

Best win: 6-1 victory at New York Islanders on Nov. 1

Video: Kucherov's four points lift Lightning to 6-1 win

Coming at the conclusion of a lengthy, grinding six-game road trip near the beginning of the season, Tampa Bay's game in Brooklyn vs. the Islanders didn't look particularly promising for the Lightning.

In their previous outing two days earlier at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, the Lightning got blitzed in a 6-1 blowout, the Rangers setting an unofficial record for odd-man rushes against a consistently under siege Ben Bishop.

How would the Bolts respond after being humiliated?

Quite well, it turned out.

The Lightning put together probably their most complete 60-minute performance of the season in a 6-1 humiliation of the Islanders, the Bolts recording their largest margin of victory this season a game after suffering their largest margin of defeat.

Nikita Kucherov scored a pair of power-play goals in the first 13 minutes of the game for a quick 2-0 Lightning lead. Steven Stamkos pushed the advantage to 3-0 by the end of the first period after netting his seventh goal of the season.

Tampa Bay continued pouring it on after the first intermission.

Brian Boyle, public enemy No. 1 for Islanders fans dating back to last season's Second Round playoff matchup, backhanded a shot over Jaroslav Halak after a spinning, behind-the-back pass from Ryan Callahan to make it 4-0.

J.T. Brown scored his first goal of the season on a shorthanded breakaway for a 5-0 advantage, prompting boos from the Barclays Center home crowd and chants of "Fire Cappy" from the Islanders faithful. The Bolts capped the scoring blitz when Valtteri Filppula pushed home their sixth goal of the game at 11:19 of the second period.

In just over 30 minutes of play, the Lightning had put a six-spot on the score board.

The only blemish to an otherwise perfect night came when Dennis Seidenberg ruined Ben Bishop's shutout bid by scoring with 30 seconds remaining in the second period.

Game the Bolts would most like to have back: 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Dec. 10

Video: Condensed Game: Penguins @ Lightning

In a rematch of last season's Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning opened up a 3-1, second period lead against Pittsburgh but watched helplessly as the Penguins scored three-consecutive goals on the power play to rally for a 4-3 win.

Where have we heard that before, the Lightning unable to hold onto a late lead, Pittsburgh coming from behind to win 4-3?

Lightning fans certainly had flashbacks to the 2016 ECF on this night.

The Penguins' power play had only scored on one of its previous 20 attempts entering the Lightning tilt but couldn't be stopped over the second half of the game. Phil Kessel played a key role in getting the Pens' special-teams unit back on track as he had an assist on all three Pittsburgh power-play goals.

Evgeni Malkin struck with 2:35 left in the second period to cut the Lightning lead to 3-2 entering the second intermission.

After the break, Sidney Crosby leveled the score at 5:08 of the third period, and Malkin converted again, scoring 11 seconds into the Penguins' final power play for the 4-3 final.

The loss was maybe the most demoralizing of the year for a fragile Lightning team that fell to 2-7-1 over their previous 10 games following the Pittsburgh defeat.

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