The first four games of the 2014-15 season are in the books for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished with a 2-1-1 record and five points. The Bolts have an early-morning practice Thursday before their charter to Vancouver, the first stop in a five-city, ten-day road trip to Western Canada and Minnesota. Let’s recap what we learned Tuesday night against the Devils as well as the rest of the four-game home stand.
1. Evgeni Nabokov is a more-than-capable backup goaltender
The Lightning went shopping during the offseason for a backup to mentor No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop as well as play anywhere from 20-25 games during the season to keep Bishop from getting beating up like he did in 2013-14.
The Bolts choice, Evgeni Nabokov, has provided all that and more.
The former New York Islanders starting netminder for the past three seasons, Nabokov has fit easily into Tampa Bay’s locker room, his affable personality endearing him to his teammates. He pushes Bishop each day in practice and, with 14 years in the NHL, gives Bishop a model to follow for productivity and longevity in the league.
Plus, as he demonstrated Tuesday in the Bolts’ 2-1 loss to Devils, he can still play exceptionally well. His reactionary, top-of-the-stick save on Michael Ryder was as good as any we’ve seen this season, and, time after time against the Devils, Nabokov was in position to make stops and keep the Lightning within striking distance.
“Nabby made some unreal saves,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said following the game.
2. The Bolts’ special teams are a force to be reckoned with
Last season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were abysmal on the penalty kill, ranking 23rd in the NHL with an 80.7% success rate. That stat was a point of emphasis during the offseason, and it appears the Lightning have adequately addressed the deficiency. Through its first three games, Tampa Bay was a perfect 9-for-9 on the penalty kill. The Lightning continued that trend against New Jersey, killing the first three Devils’ power-play opportunities before the Bolts finally surrendered their first power-play goal in the third period, which proved to be the game winner. Still, 12-of-13 with a 92.3% success rate – seventh in the league – is a considerable improvement from a season ago.
Additionally, the Lightning power play has been outstanding through the first four games, turning man-advantages into goals at a 31.6% rate, good for fifth in the NHL. The Lightning scored at least one power-play goal in each of their first three games and have six already this season.
Last year, the Lightning converted 18.5% of their power-play opportunities, 13th in the league.
3. Victor Hedman should be a finalist for the Norris Trophy
In his sixth season in the league, Victor Hedman has established himself as one of the top defenders in the NHL and maybe even the best. Last season, Hedman had career highs for goals (13) and assists (42). Through four games, he’s on pace to shatter those marks.
Hedman scored a goal in each of the Bolts’ first three games, including the overtime game-winner in the season opener against Florida. He has assisted on four Lightning goals and leads the team with seven points, three more than the next highest (Valtteri Filppula and Steven Stamkos). With seven points, Hedman is tied with four others for the league points lead and is the only defenseman among that group.
And he’s pretty good defending too. With Hedman highlighting a deep, experienced group of defensemen, the Lightning are allowing just 1.75 goals a game, ranking fifth in the NHL.
“I was still coaching Florida when Victor came into the league as an 18-year-old rookie and, wow, where he was then compared to where he is now, when you watch him, four or five years into his career, he’s turned himself into an elite defenseman,” New Jersey head coach Peter DeBoer said before his team’s matchup with the Lightning.