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Burns: Improved defense, Stamkos' scoring highlight road opener despite Hedman injury

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay got off to a good start on its first road trip of the season, holding off the Vancouver Canucks for a 4-2 victory at Rogers Arena. The Lightning grabbed the opening goal in the game's first minute and never trailed. Steven Stamkos scored a pair of goals, Ryan Callahan added the game-winner and Ben Bishop made 30 quality saves to push the Bolts record to 3-1-1 (7 points).

Starting after 10 p.m. (ET) and ending somewhere around 12:30 a.m. the next morning, the game was one of the latest finishes the Lightning will have all season. Couldn't make it to the final whistle? We've got you covered.

1. The Lightning defense has improved dramatically under head coach Jon Cooper

Two years ago when Jon Cooper took over midseason as the eighth head coach in Tampa Bay history, the Lightning were a wreck defensively, ranking 26th in the National Hockey League for goals allowed at over three (3.06) a game.

Cooper's objective the next year in his first full season on the Bolts bench was to cut half a goal off of that number, which the Lightning accomplished with a 2.55 goals allowed per game average, good for 11th in the NHL. Not coincidentally, the Bolts qualified for the postseason as the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Now, through five games of the 2014-15 season, that goals allowed average has continued to drop for the Lightning. With just nine goals given up, the Bolts rank sixth in the league with a 1.80 GAA.
Tampa Bay has yet to allow more than two goals through regulation and overtime in any game this season. A combination of strong defensemen and steady goalkeeping, along with Cooper's increased attention, has turned a negative into a considerable positive.

2. That improved defense will be tested without stud blue liner Victor Hedman

Victor Hedman was having the best start of his six-year NHL career in 2014-15, having scored three goals, including the overtime game-winner in the season opener, assisting on four and recording seven points, the most for a defenseman in the NHL through the first week of the season.

Somewhere in the second period of Saturday's victory at Vancouver, however, Hedman went to the bench and down the tunnel for what the team is calling an upper-body injury and never returned.

Following the game, Cooper said Hedman would return to Tampa for further evaluation and would likely miss the remainder of the road trip. When asked if it was an issue with his hand, which he appeared to be holding as he left the ice, Cooper's reply to reporters was "draw your own conclusions".

Losing Hedman for an extended period of time will be a huge blow to the Lightning but one they have experience dealing with. The Bolts were without Stamkos for 45 games last season, yet still managed a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division. Likewise, Bishop hurt his wrist in January and played in pain for the remainder of the season until a second injury knocked him out of the last week of the regular season and the playoffs.

The Bolts learned last season how to continue winning without its best players. Unfortunately, it looks like they'll have to draw on that experience again, at least in the short term until the extent of Hedman's injury is known.

3. Could this be the best season yet for Steven Stamkos?

It's hard to fathom how Stamkos could continue to improve considering he's arguably the best player in the NHL right now and a lock for the Hall of Fame once he retires.

But with five goals through his first five games in 2014-15, the Lightning captain has matched a career high for most goals to start a season (he also did it in 2010-11).

After getting shut out in his first two games, Stamkos broke through with his eighth career hat trick in a 7-1 demolition of the Montreal Canadiens.

Two games later, Stamkos added a pair of first-period goals against Vancouver and nearly had a third until a timely poke of the stick from Canucks goalie Eddie Lack thwarted another golden scoring chance in the opening period.

Having not played a full season since 2011-12 because of last year's injury and the NHL lockout the season before, Lightning fans should be buzzing about the type of numbers Stamkos could accumulate this year.

The 60 goals and 97 points Stamkos put up in 2011-12 were career highs. Those numbers could be in jeopardy.

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