Seven games into the Lightning season, here are seven thoughts.
Video: Kucherov | Postgame NJD 5, TBL 41. Thanks to his incredibly hot start, Nikita Kucherov is the talk of the NHL. As has been well-documented, he is just the sixth player in the NHL's modern era (since 1943-44) to begin a season with a goal in seven consecutive games. What's been just as remarkable is how he's done it. Of the eight goals Kucherov has scored, six have been of a highlight-reel variety. Perfect, unstoppable shots. Those six have come from all areas of the ice and included forehands, backhands, wrist shots and slap shots. What about the other two? One, in Florida on October 7, was a rebound in front after Steven Stamkos hit the crossbar (following a splendid pass from Kucherov). The other was his "cue ball with english" tip in Detroit last Monday. What did those two have in common? They came from right in front of the net, meaning that Kucherov, in addition to rifling shots into the net, is also going to the net looking for loose pucks. Another impressive aspect of his total - seven of his eight goals have come during five-on-five play.
2. The Lightning have played much better in the last five games than they did in the first two. In the opening games against the Panthers, the Lightning didn't have enough urgency to their game - Florida was quicker and hungrier to get to loose pucks - and the Lightning's puck management was poor. As a result, the Lightning simply didn't have the puck much during those games. That was reflected in Florida's large advantage in shots and shot attempts. But beginning with the October 7 game against Washington, the Lightning have improved in both of those categories. Playing with urgency and cleaner puck management has increased the amount of time the Lightning have had the puck - and decreased it for the opposition. Certainly, there have been other factors at play, but the Lightning's high compete-level and ability to limit turnovers have been crucial to their 4-0-1 run over the past five games.
Video: WSH@TBL: Kunitz tips in Stralman's shot for the goal3. Part of that increased puck possession time can be attributed to the line of Cedric Paquette, Ryan Callahan and Chris Kunitz. Paquette rejoined the lineup on Saturday after missing one game due to injury and since he returned, that unit has been fantastic. The three players spend most every shift controlling pucks in the offensive zone. They are tenacious on the forecheck, so, after dumping pucks in, they are able to force turnovers in the opposition's zone. Once they've retrieved the puck, they keep it deep in the other team's end. Those types of shifts can be momentum-turners. They can also set the tone for a period. That's why Jon Cooper has used that line to begin the last four periods the Lightning have played.
4. The other three lines have also made an impact. The Stamkos-Kucherov-Vladdy Namestnikov line has been dynamic offensively and produced a number of big goals. The Brayden Point-Ondrej Palat-Yanni Gourde unit has often drawn the assignment of containing the opposition's top line (especially at home, where the Lightning have the last change). The three players not only have done a terrific job against the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Evgeny Kuznetsov Sidney Crosby and Paul Stastny, they've also contributed offense. Then there's the line of Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn and a third rotating forward. This "partial" line is a by-product of the Lightning using 11 forwards and seven defensemen. It allows Cooper to give more ice time to Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, etc. It's been an effective line, too - for example, Kucherov's tying goal in the third period against Washington came when he was on the ice with Killorn and Johnson.
Video: STL@TBL: Vasilevskiy sprawls to shut down Stastny5. Andrei Vasilevskiy's numbers (3.00 GAA and .914 save percentage) aren't reflective of how well he has played. He has given the Lightning a chance to get points out of every game he has started. Peter Budaj had a tough first period on Tuesday in New Jersey, but rebounded well in the second and third. He hadn't played in three weeks, so there may have been some rust issues early. But like Vasilevskiy has done in every other game this year, Budaj made some key saves at critical points.
6. Related to that last topic, there is an area that has continued to cause issues for the Lightning. They've given up lots of scoring chances off the rush - and that's something they'd like to clean up. Their best overall defensive performance came in last Saturday's 2-1 win over St. Louis, but even in that game, the Blues had some good looks off the rush. In Tuesday's game against the Devils, the Lightning controlled the puck for most of the final two periods, but the Devils still had some isolated counters off the rush and they forced Budaj to make a handful of remarkable saves on Grade-A chances.
Video: TBL@NJD: Palat slams home Johnson's dish for PPG7. After seven games last year, the Lightning were 5-2-0, just one point behind their current total. But there's a different feel to their start this season. Last year, the Lightning won some early games in which they didn't play especially well. This year, other than their opening night victory over the Panthers and their loss the next night in Florida, that hasn't been the case. As mentioned earlier, their play in the last five games has been, as a whole, solid. We'll see if they can keep it going as they finish the week with two tough opponents: Columbus and Pittsburgh.