That would be the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of five-consecutive games and closing in on Florida for first place in the Atlantic Division.
The Lightning’s run of victories is second in the NHL currently to only Anaheim, the Ducks having strung together seven wins in a row to erase a dismal start to the season and climb to second place in the Pacific.
Tampa Bay’s 4-0 shutout victory Friday over the New Jersey Devils was more of the same we’ve seen from the Bolts over the past week. They continued to play responsible hockey, sacrificing the speculative play for the smart one. They were efficient. They limited the amount of pucks New Jersey was able to send Ben Bishop’s way, holding the Devils to 21 shots and only a couple of scoring chances of any real quality. They stayed out of the penalty box. They took their own scoring chances when they had them.
It was a near-perfect game for the Lightning.
“(Friday) was one of our better overall games,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said following the victory. “…We played the right way, we got rewarded and it was fun to be out there.”
The Lightning have been having a lot of fun lately.
They’ll try to keep the good times going Sunday as their four-game road trip moves to Boston.
In today’s 3 Things, we’ll examine what the Lightning did well in New Jersey to continue their current hot play.
1. STARTING STRONG
The Lightning knew they would be playing a desperate, tired hockey team when they took on the Devils Friday.
New Jersey was bludgeoned a night before in Columbus, falling 6-1 to the Blue Jackets, an embarrassing result for a Devils team fighting to get into the playoffs. After that loss, they flew back to New Jersey and arrived late that night, forced to play less than 24 hours against a red-hot Lightning squad.
The Bolts figured the Devils would start the game Friday with a jump in their step, eager to prove Thursday’s loss an aberration. The Bolts also knew if they could weather that storm, they should be able to wear down the Devils over the course of the game.
The start would be crucial.
“When you’re playing a team that played (a night earlier), you try to jump on them early,” Stamkos said before the game. “If there’s any fatigue, we’ve had a day of rest here, a couple days, hopefully we can bring some energy.”
That energy was on full display right from the opening puck drop. The Lightning never let the Devils find their game and garner any momentum that could carry them through issues with fatigue. The Bolts peppered New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider early and often, the All-Star netminder making a couple huge saves to keep Tampa Bay off the scoreboard.
The Bolts finally broke through with a little less than five minutes remaining in the first period, Alex Killorn getting free along the post for a rebound and jamming the puck into the open net while falling backwards.
Once the Lightning scored the opening goal, the Devils didn’t have the will or the energy to fight back. The Bolts took complete control in the second period to cruise to a comfortable shutout victory.
“We have to take advantage of a tired team and we did,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “…That’s the way this league is and the schedule sets up. We’re sitting here waiting for them. We have to come in and take advantage of this and we did. They’ve got a good team. They’ve got good players in there. We could just see, as that game wore on, they just didn’t have their legs and we caught them at a right time with the schedule, just as teams have caught us at the right time. But we have to take advantage and we did.”
2. GETTING DIRTY
Steven Stamkos extended his Lightning-season-best goal streak to five games after netting his 27th goal of the season late in the second period Friday night.
Stamkos owns the longest active goal streak in the NHL, and needs goals in just two more games to tie for the longest goal streak in the league this season.
Stamkos has regained his scoring touch, but not using his traditional methods. There haven’t been a lot of left circle one-timers or wrist shot snipes from the slot during this current run. Instead, a lot of his scores of late have come out of getting to the front of the net, jockeying for rebounds and trying to get tips on shots from distance.
Stamkos said it’s all part of the plan.
“I’ve had some more goals in front of the net,” he said. “I tried to make a conscious effort of going there. I’ve scored a lot of goals in my career from there and try to always be a threat no matter where you are on the ice.”
Tampa Bay’s opening goal was set up by Stamkos getting dirty in front of the crease. Ryan Callahan sent a pass from the left point toward the net with Stamkos there boxing out for position. Stamkos wheeled and shot at Schneider, who made the pad save but couldn’t prevent Killorn from netting the rebound.
On the Bolts’ third goal, the one that ultimately sucked the life from the Devils, Stamkos, between the circles, tipped Anton Stralman’s shot from the right point with the shaft of his stick, causing it to deflect up and over Schneider and into the top corner of the goal.
Stamkos’ line with Killorn and Callahan accounted for two of the Lightning’s four goals on Friday, continuing their impressive offensive production since reuniting as a line a few games ago.
“Those guys now are really kind of finding themselves,” Cooper said. “You watch, they had a lot of puck possession down there, they’re cycling pucks, they’re getting them up top and they’ve got a will to go to the net, all those guys. When you start getting paid off doing that, it sure makes it a heck of a lot easier to keep going, so that’s great to see.”
3. LIMITING CHANCES
Since giving up five goals to Winnipeg on February 18, the Lightning have made a concerted effort to get back to the way they were playing defensively at the start of the season.
For much of the first half of 2015-16, the Bolts ranked in the top five in the league for goals against. That ranking slipped outside the top five after a six-game stretch that saw the Bolts give up 3.83 goals a game (Feb. 8-18).
Since then, however, Tampa Bay has allowed just five goals over the last four games.
“That’s just good goaltending,” Lightning goalie Ben Bishop deadpanned following the New Jersey win, drawing laughter from the reporters gathered around him.
Bishop has been very good of late, the All-Star netminder winning three straight and earning his third shutout of the season on Friday.
But he’s had some help from the defensemen in front of him. It took the Bolts’ back line some time to adjust to the absence of Jason Garrison, who was injured Feb. 8 at the start of that defensive slump, but they have since regrouped.
Matt Carle, a healthy scratch at various times, has done a tremendous job filling in during Garrison’s absence and is playing his best hockey of the season. He scored his second goal and was plus-3 versus the Devils, the second time in the last four games he was plus-three.
Once Garrison returns, which should happen at some point on the current road trip, the Bolts’ backline will be further bolstered.
“We went through a stretch there where we were giving up too many chances, and I think the last few games we’ve really kind of dialed that down,” Bishop said. “We’ve been trying to take pride in that. You can tell the last few games the chances, there aren’t as many 2-on-1s or breakaways and what not. We’ve been talking about it the last couple weeks. To see it kind of come full circle, it’s good and we’ve obviously got to keep with it.”