Tampa Bay's road contest at the Los Angeles Kings had all the makings of a trap game for the Lightning.
Sandwiched around tough outings at Anaheim and at San Jose, the game against the Kings featured the top team in the NHL by a wide margin against one of its worst, the Kings entering Thursday's contest ranked tied for last in the League. Los Angeles, the NHL's lowest-scoring team, had netted 91 goals before the Lightning game; the Bolts scored 68 in the month of December alone.
Typically, these are the types of games where the favorite comes in flat, and sometimes the underdog can take advantage and score the upset.
The Lightning let it be known early they weren't about to let the Kings trip them up off their current run.
Tampa Bay scored a pair of goals on a 5-on-3 power play in the first period and added another opening-period marker for a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Bolts cruised from there to a comfortable 6-2 victory over Los Angeles, in the process extending their point streak to 16 games, just two games shy of matching the all-time franchise mark of 18-straight games with a point during the 2003-04 season. The Bolts pushed their win streak to seven games, the second-longest win streak of the season.
Tampa Bay handled the Kings in workmanlike fashion Thursday. Here's how they did it.
Video: TBL@LAK: Stamkos nets PPG on one-timer
1. POWER-PLAY PROWESS
Tampa Bay's power play has been overshadowed by all of the team and individual records the Bolts set in December.
But the power play has been connecting at an incredible rate of late.
In December, the Lightning power play was successful on 35.7 percent of its chances, tied for the best power-play percentage for a single month in Lightning franchise history. The Bolts scored at least one power-play goal in 10 games in the month. They had multiple power-play goals in seven of those games.
Tampa Bay picked right up in 2019 where it left off in 2018
The Lightning were granted a trio of power-play opportunities in the first period when Brendan Leipsic was assessed a four-minute double minor for high-sticking Braydon Coburn and Dustin Brown was whistled for hooking Brayden Point 51 seconds later.
The Bolts wasted little time going to work. Nikita Kucherov netted the game's first goal 17 seconds into the 5-on-3 advantage to register his 20th goal of the season and extend his point streak to a career-high 12 games. Steven Stamkos set up the goal, threading a pass into the right circle for Kucherov to slam home.
Still on the 5-on-3, the Lightning connected again, Stamkos slipping a pass from the slot to the lower edge of the left circle for Brayden Point, who buried the opportunity to extend his own point streak to eight games, a career long.
Effectively, the game was over less than 10 minutes into the contest because of the Lightning's quick strike goals.
"It's just about executing," Stamkos said. "When you have the skill set we do on the power play and we have the threats from all different spots, it's tough to defend when we're on our game."
In the second period, the Lightning added another power-play marker, Steven Stamkos firing an off-balance one-timer from his office on the left dot to give the Bolts a 5-1 lead.
The Lightning have scored three or more power-play goals in a game four times now this season.
"When we're shooting pucks and then we're going and retrieving pucks, burning out the PK and then when the seams open, we take advantage," Stamkos said. "On my goal today, that's exactly what happened. We got the looks we wanted. We executed the shot. We retrieved puck and then broke them down and found a seam. The power play has been a huge part of why we've had success as well as the PK, and special teams is big. We've been pretty dominant on special teams throughout this stretch."
Video: TBL@LAK: Vasilevskiy makes save, freezes puck
2. COMMITMENT TO DEFENSE CONTINUES
The Lightning targeted the number of goals they've allowed as an area of the game where they wanted to be better and needed to be better to achieve the goals they set out for this season.
So far, in the last two games since addressing this deficiency, the Bolts have allowed just a combined three goals. In Thursday's 6-2 victory over the Kings, Tampa Bay limited Los Angeles to just a handful of good scoring opportunities. The Lightning held the Kings to one goal until late in the game on a Los Angeles power play with the outcome having already been decided.
Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, who had a goal and an assist in the win over the Kings for his second multi-point game of the season, said the team has been committed to cleaning up its defensive side despite the fact it's still winning games.
"It's just getting back to what makes us successful," he said. "Through an 82-game schedule, there's going to be dips and flows and not be great some nights. I think the quicker you nip it and the quicker you realize the areas you need to improve in even when you're winning, the better off you are as a team, and we're doing that."
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper's answer was a bit more technical when discussing the commitment to defending the team has made of late.
"It starts with odd-man rushes," Cooper said. "When you don't give those up, you're probably taking away some scoring chances. They've tightened up defensively. But it all starts in the offensive zone, the way you're tracking back, making sure we've got more numbers than them on the way back and they're working hard. When you do that, usually good things happen."
Full disclosure, Los Angeles entered Thursday's game with the worst offense in the NHL. So, hard to tell if the Lightning have really improved defensively or if the Kings are just that bad. But, Lightning fans should have a better handle on how well the defense is performing Saturday in San Jose.
3. JUST FOR FUN
So why are the Lightning having so much success currently?
Surely, the number of good players they have at all positions of the roster helps. The Lightning have been scoring more goals than any other NHL team, their defensive corps is led by Norris Trophy candidates Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. And the goaltending is maybe the best it's even been with Andrei Vasilevskiy (16 wins) and Louis Domingue (15).
The Bolts are on a 16-game point streak and have wins in seven straight and show no signs of weakness or slowing down.
"It's fun. It's fun to come to the rink," Stamkos said. "It's fun to go out there and play and be with these guys. It's obviously something that a lot of us haven't gone through at this level is this many games with a point or this many wins or this type of stretch. Guys are coming in and playing the right way. We've had some ups and downs. We've found ways to win. At the end of the day, when we're coming to the rink, we want to get better. Before these two games, we were giving up too many chances, too many goals. The last couple games, we've really had the puck more and defended a lot better."
Credit to the Lightning coaching staff for keeping the team engaged. It could have been fairly expected for the Lightning to just mail in their performance at times with such a staggering lead in the NHL standings. But Cooper has found different ways to motivate his team, like focusing on the defensive side of the puck, to keep his players engaged and always improving.
"We have a pretty unique nucleus in terms of guys that have been here for a while and then you add in the skill set, you add in the leadership qualities that are within this room, it's one of the best I've ever played with," Stamkos said. "You put all of those things together and you just don't complacent, especially when you're on a stretch like this. It can be easy to say, 'Oh well, we're not going to win them all. Let's go out and see what happens.' We want to win every night. We just have that belief on the bench that no matter what happens, if we're down a goal or two early, we're going to find a way. If we're up a goal, we're going to hold on and play well. We've found different ways to win throughout this stretch, and we just want to continue it. It's not easy to win in this league, but when you have the skill set that we have and then you have the work and the will to get better, you can go on stretches like this."