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Burns: Three things we learned from the New York back-to-back

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay secured three of four points on a short, two-day road trip through the state of New York. The Lightning followed a gritty performance against the New York Rangers with an uneven showing in a shootout loss to the better-than-expected Buffalo Sabres.

With Montreal having the night off, Tampa Bay returned to the top spot in the Atlantic Division by virtue of its point in Buffalo. The Lightning’s 37 points also lead the NHL currently.

So, what did we learn about the Bolts as they prepare for a four-games-in-eight-days homestand? Let’s take a look, shall we?

1. The Lightning have yet to figure out their best shootout takers

Tampa Bay has struggled in shootouts so far in 2014-15, their record in shootouts dropping to 1-3 following Tuesday’s loss to the Sabres.

The main issue? The Bolts haven’t identified their best shootout scorers.

On Tuesday, Ondrej Palat got his first crack this season and came up empty.

The Lightning have converted just 2-of-10 shootout attempts. Nikita Kucherov was successful on the Bolts’ first try of the season against Ottawa but was denied in Chicago. Ryan Callahan buried his first in Detroit but has been stopped twice since, including Tuesday versus Buffalo.

In all, six different Bolts have been given an opportunity in the shootout. We’re guessing more players will get a shot given the team’s lack of success.

“Shootouts, in my opinion, it’s a crapshoot,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said. “You have no idea what’s going to happen. You can have the best shootout player in the world but one shot it just doesn’t really matter.”

Case in point: Steven Stamkos. The Bolts’ leading scorer would figure to be the best shootout option, but Stamkos is 0-for-2 this season and for his career, Stamkos is now 7-for-33, a 21 percent success rate.

2. Tampa Bay is the best scoring team in the NHL, until Evgeni Nabokov is in goal

With 91 goals in 26 games, the Lightning lead the NHL in both the number of goals scored and average goals per game (3.5).

Yet, when backup goalie Evgeni Nabokov is between the pipes, that number drops precipitously.

Throw out a seven-goal outburst in Columbus, and the Lightning have scored only eight times in five Nabokov starts, an average of 1.6 per game.

After beginning the season brightly in performances against New Jersey and Calgary, Nabokov struggled over his next three starts. Tuesday against the Sabres, Nabokov returned to his previous high level, stopping 21 Buffalo shots and making several solid stops to keep the Bolts in the game when the offense wasn’t clicking.

His teammates, however, couldn’t match Nabokov’s form.

“I think that’s why a lot of the guys are disappointed is we didn’t really give (Nabokov) our A-game,” Johnson said following the Buffalo shootout loss. “Other times he’s been in the net, I don’t think we’ve given him our A-game. We need to be better for him. We want to be better for him. He’s an unreal guy, unreal teammate, and he deserves better from our team.”

Part of the problem is five of Nabokov’s starts have come during the second game of back-to-backs. Those five also happen to be the five games the Lightning have scored just eight goals.

3. The Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line continues to be one of the most dangerous combos in the NHL

In the 6-3 victory Monday against the New York Rangers, Tyler Johnson scored two goals, set up by his linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

Tuesday, the three struck again for Tampa Bay’s only goal, Kucherov backhanding a pass at the opponent’s blue line to a streaking Johnson to start a two-on-one, and Johnson slipping his feed underneath a sliding Tyson Strachan for Palat to bury past Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth.

“Kuch made an unreal play in the middle,” Johnson said.

For a while, it appeared that score would stand as the game’s only goal until Zemgus Girgensons leveled the score with 3:54 to go.

Anytime the Palat-Johnson-Kucherov line is in the game for the Lightning, good things tend to follow. When they’re not scoring, they’re keeping the puck in the opponent’s defensive zone and forcing opposing goaltenders to make saves.

The trio has been perhaps the biggest bright spot for a Lightning squad overflowing with positives so far this season.

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