If you asked Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper before the season started if he'd be happy with his team winning four of their first five games, he'd absolutely take that every time.
Truth is, the Lightning are still a bit salty they didn't go 5-0-0.
Tampa Bay finished up its season-opening home stand with a 3-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday. The Lightning got another solid effort in net from Andrei Vasilevskiy, who stopped 29-of-30 shots. Steven Stamkos scored his first goal of the season, netting the game-winner at 15:19 of the second period, his 50th career game-winning goal. Plus, the Lightning protected their one-goal lead over the duration of the third period, Alex Killorn tacking on an empty-netter for the 3-1 final.
And how's this for domination? The Lightning have won 12 in a row now at home over Detroit and 12 in a row overall against the Red Wings. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Bolts are 19-4-0 in the regular season versus their Atlantic Division rivals and are 2-for-2 in playoff series.
Tampa Bay hits the road for the next five games, starting Saturday night against Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center. But before we find out how well the Lightning's play translates away from AMALIE Arena, let's break down what the Bolts are doing well to enable them to win four of their first five games.
Video: Cooper on the 4-2 win over the Red Wings
1. PENALTY KILL MAKES HISTORY
If you're a regular reader of my 3 Things, you might think my praise of the penalty kill is a bit of a broken record. I think I might have mentioned the PK in at least three of my columns.
But you really can't discount how effective the special teams unit has been this season and how it's led to a lot of the team's early-season success.
On Thursday, the penalty kill made history. For the first time in franchise history, the Lightning have gone five games to start the season without allowing an opponent power-play goal. The Bolts were 5-for-5 against Detroit and are now 23-for-23 on the season. Going back to the playoffs, Tampa Bay is 32-of-33 over the last 10 games.
The Lightning remain the only team in the NHL that has yet to give up a power-play goal in 2018-19.
What's even more significant? The Bolts are creating offense from their penalty kill. Against Detroit, Tyler Johnson and Mathieu Joseph turned a shorthanded break into about three or four really great scoring chances during a penalty kill in the second period. The Lightning were unfortunate not to score there, but a few minutes later, Steven Stamkos hit the back of the net with a one-timer from the slot at even strength for the game-winning goal.
Overall, the Lightning are plus-two this season on the penalty kill having scored two shorthanded goals without giving up a goal of its own.
"The penalty kill has been huge, obviously, all year, not allowing any goals and creating a lot of opportunities off of it," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "We have got so much speed off the penalty kill now that we're not afraid to attack. We're catching some power plays now that, you know, we're thinking about the other net and not our own. Most importantly we kept the puck out of our net, and a lot of that was due to Vasy and his play."
Video: Callahan on his first game back from injury
2. GOING BACK TO CALLY
Thursday marked the return of Ryan Callahan to the Lightning lineup, and the right wing played his usual hard-nosed, all-out game, dishing out three hits, tallying two takeaways and putting up one shot in 11:03 of ice time.
Callahan missed all of preseason and the first four games of the regular season after having offseason shoulder surgery. He was slated to return in November, but he got early clearance from his doctors and was back in the lineup about two weeks ahead of schedule.
Callahan doesn't light up the scoresheet the way he did when he first came to the Lightning via trade with the New York Rangers in 2013-14. But his value to the Lightning is measured in ways that don't show up in the stats.
"It's huge," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said about having Callahan back in the lineup. "He's just going to progressively get better. It didn't look like he missed a big chunk of time. He's worked extremely hard. Sometimes it's tough watching. I've been on that end where you rehab and you get back skating and you just want to go out there and play. He's worked extremely hard, such a warrior for us and a leader who helps in the room as well. So we're definitely glad to have him back."
Callahan also saw half-a-minute of ice time on Tampa Bay's penalty kill against Detroit. He's been an integral part of that unit during his seasons with the Lightning, it's expected the coaching staff will try to ease him back into that role. There's not a huge need for him now on the PK because that unit is playing so well currently and the Lightning would like to keep Callahan as healthy and out of harm's way as possible.
But he figures to be a major factor on that unit as well as the season progresses.
Video: DET@TBL: Vasilevskiy stones Ehn's breakaway chance
3. EMPHASIS ON DEFENSE
Let's talk a bit about the job the Lightning are doing preventing goals.
Through five games, Tampa Bay has allowed only 10 goals, that two goal a game average ranking tied for second in the NHL. And two of those 10 goals came on an empty net with the Lightning trying to claw back into an eventual 4-1 loss to Vancouver.
Having great goaltending helps, which the Lightning are blessed with in the form of Andrei Vasilevskiy, a Vezina Trophy finalist, and Louis Domingue, who is 8-3-1 since being traded to Tampa Bay by Arizona. But after leading the league in goals last year yet ranking just 13th in the league for goals allowed at 2.85 per game, the Lightning are making a concerted effort to play better defense this season and it's showing.
Against Detroit, the Bolts' only goal allowed came on a scramble play in front of the net where Vasilevskiy couldn't find the puck through a mass of bodies and legs in front of him, and Luke Glendening pounced on the loose change to slip it in the back of the net.
After that, nothing.
Vasilevskiy had to make a tremendous save to rob Frans Nielsen with the glove on a two-on-one break, but the Red Wings were never able to generate any other prime scoring chances to really test the Lightning netminder. In the third period, the Bolts did as good a job as you can ask for to bleed away the remaining clock and keep the Red Wings from getting a sniff at Vasilevskiy's net. They did that by keeping possession of the puck, limiting Detroit's attempts to shots from distance and keeping the front of the net clear so Vasilevskiy could see everything coming his way.
"We've played 15 periods of hockey, if you were to take the sum of everything and say how we played defensively, I'd give us a good grade in that. Part of that is getting big saves, but just chances as a whole, I like the way we're playing," Cooper said.
That'll be a major storyline through the duration of the season, how well can the Lightning play defensively to keep pucks out of their own net. We know they can score goals and plenty of them.
But if the Bolts are also ranking near the top of the league standings for least amount of goals allowed, that could translate into a special season.