When the Tampa Bay Lightning reeled off 10-straight wins from late December into January, critics could brush off the run because it came against mainly teams out of the playoff picture.
But there's no dismissing the quality of the opponents the Lightning have beaten on their current six-game streak.
Quite simply, the Bolts are playing really good hockey right now, maybe as good as anybody in the NHL.
The Lightning entered a three-game homestand Tuesday with 10-consecutive games against opponents in a playoff position at the time. They're currently 3-0-0 to start that stretch.
The latest victory, a methodical 3-1 win over the New York Islanders, a team that outscored the Lightning 10-3 in two wins before the holiday break, shows just how far Tampa Bay's game has come since it limped through the first two months of the season.
The Lightning played a tight, defensive game against a team known for being as good defensively as any other in the League, beating the Islanders at their own game. The Bolts were opportunistic in their chances, cashing in when they presented themselves. Andrei Vasilevskiy was stellar yet again in goal in pushing his franchise-record point streak to 18 games. And the Lightning shut it down in the third period, the Islanders only getting a sniff at the net on a questionable holding call against Nikita Kucherov in the offensive zone midway through the period.
In three games, the Lightning have defeated Vegas, Pittsburgh and the Islanders, three teams that play different styles. The Bolts were able to find a way to pick up two points in each, extending their home win streak to nine games, matching the longest in the NHL this season and their overall win streak to six.
"These are the kind of games that show the growth of our team," Victor Hedman said. "We can win different ways. We can grind through games and we can (win) high-scoring games. These are the types of games you're going to see a lot down the stretch. I'm very happy with the way we answered the bell tonight."
Here's how the Lightning were able to beat another difficult opponent Saturday night at AMALIE Arena.
Video: Cooper on Bolts 3-1 win over Islanders
1. DEFENSE-FIRST MENTALITY
The Lightning hadn't quite reached the same level defensively after the bye week they displayed during their 10-game win streak.
The quality of the opponent certainly played a role. The Bolts gave up more odd-man rushes and breakaways in the first game out of the break at Dallas than they had in the month prior. Subsequent games saw the Lightning eliminate the high odd-man volume, but teams were still getting more chances than the Bolts were used to.
Against the Islanders, however, that defense-first mentality was on full display in one of the Lightning's finest efforts in their own end this season.
Tampa Bay limited the Islanders to just 18 shots on net, the fewest it's allowed in a game this season.
"This is where you want to just keep accumulating points, but you want to see, can your team grind it out with a team that plays D and I thought we did that," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "We snuck Pointer there on the breakaway. (Verhaeghe) makes a nice play in the corner there to get us that (two-goal) lead. A little margin for error there, unfortunately we give up the power-play goal, but for the most part I thought we were very much in control of that game just the way we played. It wasn't like we were getting a ton of chances either, but we were always on top of things tonight. They're a good team so they are going to create some things, but for the most part I thought we handled it pretty well."
The Islanders' lone goal came on their only power play of the game, Derick Brassard able to get inside position and redirect Josh Bailey's pass past Andrei Vasilevskiy to get his team back in the game. That goal breathed life into an Isles team that had been stuck in neutral, because of the Bolts' tight grip defensively, for much of the night.
But even with their push for the tying goal, the Lightning were able to absorb the Islanders' momentum and retake control of the game.
Video: NYI@TBL: Verhaeghe pots backhanded goal
2. CLOSING THE DOOR
Cooper has said at times last season, his team would try to take a 3-0 lead and turn it into a 6-0 lead rather than playing for the 3-0 win, pointing to Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs against Columbus as a prime example. The Bolts kept pushing for more, took too many risks in doing so and allowed the Blue Jackets back into the game in a series they would eventually sweep.
The Lightning have worked doggedly this season to change their mentality. When they enter the third period with a lead, the focus should be on shutting the other team down.
The Bolts' third period Saturday night against the Islanders was an expert-level illustration of exactly what Cooper wants to see from his team.
Through the first 10 minutes of the third period, New York managed just one shot on goal. The Lightning controlled the puck for the majority of the period. And the scoring chances didn't dry up either as the Bolts got production from their fourth line, Carter Verhaeghe taking the puck from the wall along the goal line, skating toward the front of the net unimpeded and lifting a backhander over Semyon Varlamov to increase the Bolts' lead to 2-0.
Only a penalty to Kucherov in the offensive zone allowed the Islanders to get back into the contest somewhat. After Brassard's power-play goal, the Isles had a two- to three-minute stretch where they had the Bolts on their heels. Tampa Bay survived that brief spurt, however, and closed out the game in a businesslike manner.
"There's probably a little growth in our team," Cooper said. "We played them a couple games earlier in the year and gave up five both times and were out-chanced and out-everything. These last three games at home, we've played three entirely different teams. You've got to play different ways to win. You've got to adapt. I thought we played a simple game and we really didn't turn the puck over. We didn't give them much. We held them to under 20 shots. It was a great penalty kill. They got us in the end. Kind of a workmanlike effort. The boys cared about getting two points no matter how we do it even if it wasn't going to be flashy and that's what happened."
The Lightning limited the Islanders to only five shots in the third period, an extremely low number for a team trying desperately to get back in the game.
"I think we did a good job of playing the right way, being on the right side of pucks and not really turning over the puck much," Anthony Cirelli said. "When we're doing that, not giving up a lot of chances, the skill takes over, we get some goals there and Vasy makes some huge saves for us as well."
Video: Cirelli on Bolts winning sixth straight
3. PLAY OF THE GAME
Speaking of Cirelli, the Lightning centerman provided the biggest momentum lift for his team when he raced back to steal the puck off the stick of Mathew Barzal on a breakaway in the second period.
Barzal started the scoring chance a half step ahead of Cirelli. Barzal recently earned the title of the NHL's fastest skater after dethroning Connor McDavid in the racing competition at the All-Star Game two weeks ago. There didn't appear to be any hope for Cirelli Saturday night after Barzal began with a head start.
But that's never stopped the 22 year old.
Cirelli continued to chase. He was able to close off one side and force Barzal onto his backhand. And just as Barzal was about to shoot, Cirelli tied up his stick and took the puck away, all in one motion.
"First of all, you've got to catch the guy, and Barzal, he's got wicked speed," Brayden Point said. "You saw it at the All-Star Game. To work back is the first thing. It's tough, guy like that with that much skill, it's feeling which side you're on and where to put the puck. It was a real slick play."
The sellout crowd at AMALIE Arena applauded Cirelli for his hustle with a rousing ovation.
"I think I got caught there on the wrong side and knew I had to get back there and help out Vas," Cirelli said. "…"He's an unbelievable player. He has breakaway speed. I was lucky enough just to get a stick on it."
Cirelli's heroic play came moments after the Lightning took the lead 14 seconds into the second period on Point's breakaway - the first lead the Bolts held against the Islanders all season - and kept the Bolts playing from in front for the duration.
"There's not much more you can say about Tony and his play and just never-give-up attitude," Cooper said. "…For him to track him down from behind and be able to make that play without taking a penalty, guys on the bench really appreciated that one."