Don't look now but the Tampa Bay Lightning are starting to hit their stride.
The Lightning won their third-straight game following a 5-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres Monday night at AMALIE Arena, the Bolts following a similar script to their win two nights earlier over Anaheim: a mediocre opening period, a quick-strike attack that puts pucks in the net in waves to establish a sizable lead and a wearing down of the opponent in the final period to see the victory over the finish line.
Tampa Bay has outscored its opponents 15-6 on its three-game run.
"Special teams have helped," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said when asked what's led to his teams play of late. "I would say the penalty kill struggled early. It was getting scored on. Now we've got a lot more confidence on it now. The power play has been better. It was a top ten PP the first 10 games but now it's probably been one or two in the last few weeks, so when your special teams are rolling, that's good. And we're defending better. And when you're doing that, you're giving yourself a chance."
The Lightning have won six of their last eight.
How were they able to keep their hot play going Monday?
Here are Three Things that led to victory.
Video: BUF@TBL: Kucherov stakes Lightning to early lead
1. STARTING FAST…LIKE REALLY FAST
A key to Tampa Bay's two-game sweep of Buffalo at the NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden was its ability to get out in front of the Sabres and play from ahead.
The Lightning trailed for only 7:32 combined over the two contests.
The Bolts used that same formula to dispatch the Sabres stateside in Monday's 5-2 win.
Just :13 seconds into the third meeting this season between the two teams, Ondrej Palat forechecked aggressively to force a turnover in the Buffalo zone, Nikita Kucherov pounced on the loose puck and wristed a wicked shot from the top of the right circle past Sabres goalie Carter Hutton to give the Lightning a very early 1-0 advantage.
Kucherov's goal was tied for the fourth-fastest to start a game in Lightning history.
"We're definitely getting more consistent," Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "There's a lot of hockey left to be played, but I think our group's realizing what it takes as far as effort level and execution level. We know we're going to get every team's best no matter where we're at, home or away, and our group is really committed to trying to play as consistent as we can here in all areas."
The Lightning didn't hold that lead for long, Sam Reinhart scoring just 3:27 later to level the score 1-1. Buffalo actually held the lead briefly for 5:32 in the second period when Jimmy Vesey netted his first goal of the season on a breakaway.
But Tampa Bay answered earnestly, Mikhail Sergachev scoring on the power play at 7:20 of the second, and pressured relentlessly, Yanni Gourde scoring 2:06 after Sergachev for what would prove to be the game-winning goal, his team-leading third game-winner of the season.
The Lightning scored consecutive shorthanded goals :49 seconds apart in the third period (more on that later) to put the game out of reach.
That quick strike ability where one goal leads to two or three in the ensuing shifts was a hallmark of the 2018-19 squad that tied a NHL record with 62 wins and led the League for goals.
The last couple of games, this year's Tampa Bay squad has re-found that jump-on-them-when-their-down mentality.
"I think we're just feeding off each other, feeding off each line," Lightning center Anthony Cirelli said. "One line goes out there, gets a goal and the guys are fired up a bit and we just continue going. Every line seems to be going and contributing. I think we're just coming in waves right now."
Video: BUF@TBL: Paquette, Palat net SHGs 49 seconds apart
2. SHORTY TORE IT UP
Tampa Bay hadn't scored a shorthanded goal through 20 games to start 2019-20.
Cedric Paquette netted the first of the season at 8:17 of the third period to extend Tampa Bay's lead to two goals for the first time in the contest.
Ondrej Palat tallied the second shorty :49 seconds later to put the game out of reach.
"We had a lot of opportunities to kill tonight, something we've got to get back to being a little bit more disciplined, but it's great to get rewarded here," McDonagh said. "The guys up front that do such a good job and work extremely hard on the PK get rewarded for scoring some big goals, and it's great to see those guys find the back of the net."
Much was made of Tampa Bay's penalty kill early in the season. The Lightning gave up nine combined power-play goals in the first seven games and ranked near the very bottom of the NHL for penalty kill percentage after leading the League in that category in 2018-19.
But the penalty kill has quietly been one of the Lightning's steadiest performers of late. The Bolts have given up just one power-play goal over their last nine games, and they've quickly risen in the NHL rankings to 17th place in that department.
In November, Tampa Bay's penalty kill ranks first in the League at 96 percent.
"The commitment level, playing at a high pace, being aggressive when we can and just better execution as far as being in passing lanes or getting the puck all the way down the ice," McDonagh said when asked what's changed with the penalty kill over the last month. "No doubt, we can't forget about (Andrei Vasilevskiy) too. He's made some humongous saves in the last stretch for us on the PK. He's our No. 1 penalty killer most times out. He's given us a lot of confidence back there."
Video: BUF@TBL: Sergachev tees up PPG from the point
3. DEFENSE LEADS TO OFFENSE
Tampa Bay has gotten scoring from its blue line throughout the season. Perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman is always going to be one of the Lightning's top point producers, but the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk and the continued development of Mikhail Sergachev has helped make the Bolts' defensive corps one of the top offensive units in the NHL.
Lately, however, the blue line has done a fantastic job getting pucks to the net from the point, and the ensuing chaos in front of the net created by the forwards has led to some pretty timely goals for the Bolts.
Case in point is Gourde's game-winning goal midway through the second period. McDonagh smashed a shot left point that all three forwards from the fourth line nearly got a piece of in front of the net. Pat Maroon was in front and looked like he might have deflected McDonagh's shot. Cedric Paquette was there to clean up the rebound after the initial shot on goal looked like it might have hit the post and ricocheted out (it didn't). But it was Gourde also doing a drive-by in front that tipped McDonagh's shot into the back of the net to send the Lightning to victory.
The second goal was created in a similar manner by the defense as well. After having his centering feed intercepted early in the second period and watch Jimmy Vesey skate unimpeded toward the Lightning net and score a goal to give Buffalo its first lead, Sergachev atoned for his misplay by rifling a shot from the center point through traffic on the power play to level the score. The fact there were guys again lurking in front looking for the tip and taking away the goalie's eyes no doubt played a role in Sergachev getting his shot through.
"It's our forwards, they do such a good job of getting that puck back on the forecheck, it's our job to get shots past the first shot block and down on the net," McDonagh said. "Our guys are really working hard to get in front of the goalie's eyes and get to those pucks. We've got to continue to work at it. It's a big area as far as 5-on-5 generating offense if your defense can get those pucks down on net."