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Midseason superlatives: Best win, best play, biggest surprise and MVP

Beat writer Bryan Burns offers his thoughts on the Lightning's first half

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning have officially reached the halfway point of the 2019-20 regular season.

Forty one games into 2019-20, the Lightning are 24-13-4 (52 pts.) and riding a seven-game win streak. The Lightning have methodically climbed their way back into a playoff position, sitting third in the Atlantic Division standings and rising. The Bolts remain just a point behind second place Toronto and own two games in hand on the Maple Leafs. And they've started to reel in division leader Boston as well, now just seven points back with two games in hand on the suddenly-slumping Bruins.

Certainly, the last few weeks have helped salvage an otherwise up-and-down start to the season.

Here are the highlights from a memorable start to the 2019-20 campaign.

Video: Stamkos scores twice to lift Lightning past Bruins

BEST WIN: Dec. 12: Tampa Bay 3, Boston 2 at AMALIE Arena
There might be a bit of recency bias involved here, but one could also point to Sunday's 3-1 win at Carolina as Tampa Bay's win of the season and you wouldn't get much of an argument from me. The Lightning were dealt difficult circumstances in Carolina. They were playing the second half of a back-to-back. They had less than 24 hours to get ready for the Hurricanes with the 5 p.m. start time. The Bolts didn't arrive in their hotel in Raleigh until almost 3 a.m. because of the over two-hour flight from Ottawa to Carolina and having to clear customs on the way.

And yet, the Lightning absolutely controlled Carolina throughout Sunday's contest, Andrei Vasilevskiy even flirting with his first shutout of the season until Andrei Svechnikov spoiled his bid scoring the Canes' lone goal with eight minutes to go.

But for my money, Tampa Bay's 3-2 win at home over the Boston Bruins, the Lightning continuing their domination of Atlantic Division opponents, was the Bolts biggest of the season so far.

Why?

Well, for starters, Boston got off to an extremely fast start to the season after going to the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and established itself early on as the team to beat in the Atlantic after Tampa Bay floundered to start the season and Toronto fired its coach in November after an uneven beginning to the campaign.

In the win over the Bruins, Tampa Bay's second in two tries this season over Boston, the Lightning opened up a 3-1 lead behind power-play goals from Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point and a second goal from Stamkos at 15:13 of the third. John Moore cut the Lightning lead to one with 3:15 to play, but the Bolts held on down the stretch to secure an important win in the division.

Coming into the Boston contest, the Lightning were playing near .500 hockey with a 15-11-3 record. They occupied sixth place in the Atlantic Division standings and were 13 points back of the first-place Bruins.

Following that Boston win, the Lightning are 9-2-1 and own the second-best record in the NHL since December 12 behind only Toronto, who have experienced a renaissance under new head coach Sheldon Keefe.

The Lightning had been playing good hockey going into that Boston game but hadn't necessarily been getting the results they desired. It seems since that win over the Bruins, the Lightning now have confidence to go along with their solid play and the wins have been piling up as a result.

Video: OTT@TBL: Cirelli goes coast-to-coast for OT winner

BEST PLAY: Anthony Cirelli's overtime game-winning goal Dec. 17 vs. Ottawa
The Tampa Bay Lightning absolutely had to win their December 17 home contest against the Ottawa Senators. The Lightning had been playing well over the previous month and a half but had trouble stringing together wins and found themselves near the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings.

The Lightning had already suffered a humiliating defeat to the Senators early in the season, former Bolt Vladislav Namestnikov scoring twice in the closing minutes to spark the Senators' 4-2 win over the Lightning on October 12, winning their first game of the season in the process.

The Lightning couldn't afford a second loss to the Senators, especially with their precarious position in the standings.

Anthony Cirelli made sure in overtime they wouldn't suffer a second ignominious defeat to the Senators.

The Lightning shouldn't have needed overtime to beat the Senators. The Bolts opened up a 3-1 lead behind goals from Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette and Brayden Point, whose goal 3:32 into the second period gave the Lightning their two-goal advantage.

But Ottawa wouldn't go away and have proven in its three games against the Lightning to be a peskier team than their record would indicate.

Connor Brown cut the Lightning lead to 3-2 just 29 seconds after Point's goal, and Anthony Duclair scored on a breakaway at 15:46 of the second to level the score 3-3.

After a scoreless third period, the two sides traded chances in overtime. Then, with time winding down in the extra session, Cirelli went to work providing Lightning fans with the highlight of the first half of the season. Cirelli took the puck away from Thomas Chabot on his move toward goal then started back the other way. Cirelli split past a pair of Senators, dancing around Nick Paul and Chris Tierney as Tieney was coming off the bench.

Approaching goal with little room to maneuver and Paul and Tierney chasing him down, Cirelli was able to get the puck on his forehand and lift a shot over Ottawa goalie Marcus Hogberg while crashing into Hogberg, all three, Hogberg, Cirelli and the puck winding up in the net before it dislodged from its moorings.

Cirelli had already had two goals wiped away for goaltender interference in similar situations.

This one would count, however, after a review, sending AMALIE Arena into a frenzy and providing the Lightning with the moment they needed to go on a run around the Christmas break.

Video: MTL@TBL: Killorn rips snap shot home for second goal

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Alex Killorn's 16 goals
Lightning forward Alex Killorn has been one of the more consistent goal scorers for Tampa Bay throughout his six full seasons in the National Hockey League.

Killorn has put up anywhere from 14 to 19 goals every single season he's been in the League. He scored a career-low 14 goals in 2015-16 and followed that up with his best season goal-wise, scoring a career-high 19 in 2016-17.

Through the first half of the 2019-20 season, Killorn already has 16 goals on the season, more than he's put up in three of his six full seasons in the League, and is on pace to shatter his previous career high for goals in a season.

Currently, Killorn ranks tied for second on the Lightning for goals with Bolts captain Steven Stamkos. Only Brayden Point and his 17 goals - he took over the Lightning goal lead with his tally in Sunday's win at Carolina - rank higher than Killorn for goals this season.

Killorn has become an important part of Tampa Bay's leadership group too with Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman and Ryan Callahan all moving on during the offseason. During Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois' midseason state-of-the-Lightning interview with local media, BriseBois said Killorn "is one player that's really stepped up in terms of taking more ownership for the team's success and being more vocal out there."

Killorn's focus on leadership this season has translated into more production on the ice. Here's hoping the 30-year-old forward can continue to be a highly-impactful player for the Bolts over the second half of the season too.

Video: TBL@MTL: Vasilevskiy stymies Petry's late bid

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Is it any coincidence the Lightning are on a seven-game win streak right around the same time Andrei Vasilevskiy has reverted back to his Vezina Trophy form from a season ago and is on a win streak of his own?

We think not.

Vasilevskiy has won his last five starts. Since December 1, the Lightning netminder has posted a 10-2-1 record, his 10 wins most in the NHL over that stretch.

The first two months of the season were marked by inconsistency by Vasilevskiy. A good start would be followed up by an uneven one.

But over the last month or so, Vasilevskiy has started to string together a number of consistent starts, and the Lightning have been winning games as a result.

This, more than anything, shows that how the Lightning go as far as Andrei Vasilevskiy can take them. If the Russian backstop is playing up to his capability, the Lightning can make any team in the League look pedestrian. If he's off, so too are the Lightning, as evidenced by their start to the 2019-20 campaign.

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