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Burns: Superlatives from the first half of the season

With the Bolts atop the league standings halfway through the year, Bryan Burns hands out some midseason awards

by Jacob Lynn /

The Bolts are back in Tampa, the team returning Sunday from a three-game road swing through California, their last West Coast road trip of the season.

Tampa Bay no longer owns a win streak. Or a point run. Both of those were wiped out following a 5-2 loss in San Jose to cap the trip.

But there's plenty to be excited about as the Lightning open up a brief, two-game homestand versus Columbus on Tuesday and Carolina Thursday. The Bolts passed the midway point in the 2018-19 regular season in Los Angeles and are far and away outpacing the rest of the National Hockey League. Entering Monday, the Lightning own a 10-point lead at the top of the standings over Toronto, Calgary and Vegas, all tied in second place. Tampa Bay completed its most successful first half of the season in franchise history with 66 points through the first 41 games, five points more than the 61 points put up in the first half of the season by the previous record-holding 2017-18 squad.

Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL for assists, scoring and power-play scoring. Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos are in or near the top 10 for goal scoring. The power play ranks first in the League. The penalty kill has been a pleasant surprise performing at a top 10 pace all season.

Lots to be excited about if you're a Lightning fan.

Here's what we'll remember most from the first half of the season.

Video: TBL@LAK: Kucherov extends point streak with PPG

Is there any real surprise?

Maybe if Andrei Vasilevskiy hadn't missed four weeks with a left foot fracture, he would get consideration here. Ryan McDonagh deserves mention too for his steady play in the first half, particularly when Victor Hedman was sidelined for seven games.

But Kucherov is having the kind of season players can only dream of, a season that might break records before its all said and done.

Kucherov saw his career-long 12-game point streak come to an end in San Jose yet continues to pace the NHL for scoring by four points over Colorado's Mikko Rantanen. Through 41 games, Kucherov put up 49 assists and 69 points. At that pace, he would finish the 2018-19 regular season with 98 assists and 138 points.

The Lightning all-time record for assists in a season is 68 by both Martin St. Louis (2010-11) and Brad Richards (2005-06). The scoring record for a season is 108 points by Vincent Lecavalier in 2006-07.

Kucherov would shatter those marks if his current pace holds.

Video: Vasilesvkiy leads Lightning to 4-1 win in return

A couple other wins deserve mention. The 1-0 victory at Colorado Oct. 24, spearheaded by Ryan McDonagh, was a defensive masterpiece, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, saying "I don't know that I've seen a better game played by a defenseman maybe ever." The Lightning halted Buffalo's win streak at 10 games following a wild, back-and-forth 5-4 win at AMALIE Arena Nov. 29.

But, for the most significant win of the season so far, look no further than a 4-1 win over the Atlantic Division rival Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 13. The Lightning entered the game with a six-point lead over the Maple Leafs in the NHL standings. As dominant as the Bolts have been in the season's first half, the Maple Leafs have kept within striking distance and appear to be Tampa Bay's only real threat to an Atlantic Division crown.

Toronto entered that mid-December tilt wanting to prove it could hang (and beat) the League's best team.

And they might have if not for Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The Russian goalie stopped 48-of-49 shots -- the 48 saves tying the Lightning franchise record for saves in a game - and made three highlight-reel saves that will go down as some of the best in the League all season to backstop a 4-1 win. The Lightning went down 1-0 early in the first period then scored four unanswered goals, including a pair in a 34-second span in the final minute of the second period, to prevail.

Video: TBL@VAN: Paquette caps rush off Martel's stellar dish

Martel was walking the streets of Vancouver on his way to Rogers Arena December 18 when he got a text message that read something along the lines of: Hurry up! You're playing.

Martel wasn't planning on playing that night - he was a healthy scratch the previous 17 games -- probably why he was casually strolling to the arena as game time approached. But Ryan Callahan didn't feel right after warmups and couldn't go, which meant Martel was in the lineup and needed to hustle to get to the rink.

Without the benefit of a warmup, Martel was inserted into the lineup and played maybe the best game of his brief NHL career. Midway through the first period, Martel took a pass in the offensive zone from Adam Erne, immediately spun around to elude a defenseman and put a behind-the-back pass right onto the tape of Cedric Paquette on the back post for the center to one-time into the back of the net.

The assist was the first point of Martel's NHL career.
Later, he drew the ire of the entire Canucks team with a hit that knocked Troy Stecher out of the rest of the game. The Canucks spent the remainder of the night head hunting, Martel in particular.

The Lightning spent the remainder of the night winning, thanks in part to an unforgettable impromptu performance from Martel.

Video: TBL@EDM: Kucherov scores on breakaway

We've mentioned Andrei Vasilevskiy's miracle work versus Toronto and Ryan McDonagh's defensive prowess at Colorado.

But we're picking Nikita Kucherov's five-point night in Edmonton for our top performance of the season's first half.

Kucherov registered just the 12th game of five or more points in Lightning history when he scored a goal and added four assists in the 6-3 win in Edmonton to cap a four-game Western Canada road trip in which the Bolts finished 3-0-1.

Kucherov netted the game-tying goal that turned the tide of the game in the second period, stealing an errant pass at his own blue line and outracing a pair of Edmonton chasers to spark a breakaway that the Russian calmly converted. From that point on, the Lightning rolled, scoring six goals, four of which Kucherov assisted on.

Kucherov would go on to record four points his next time out Dec. 27 versus Philadelphia to set the Lightning record for most points in two-consecutive games (9). And he followed with a two-point night Dec. 29 against Montreal to set the franchise mark for most points in three-consecutive games (11).

The Lightning finished two games shy of tying the longest point streak in franchise history (18 games from Feb. 5 to March 12, 2004) when they went 15-0-1 from November 29 to January 3, starting with a 5-4 win over the Buffalo Sabres, halting their 10-game win streak in the process, and concluding with a dominating 6-2 win over the Kings in Los Angeles.

Along the way, the Lightning went the entire month of December without a regulation loss, becoming just the second team in franchise history (also: 6-0-1 in October 2003) and the seventh NHL club in the last 10 years to do so. Teammates Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos combined for 24-27-51 in December and became the first set of teammates to combine for at least 50 points in a full calendar month since March 2001. And the Lightning power play was 15-of-42 for a 35.7% power-play percentage in December, tied with April 2015 (5-of-14 on the power play) for the best power-play percentage in a single month in Lightning history.

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