December has been a record-shattering month for the Lightning, who still have one more game to play before the calendar turns. Their 12 wins and 25 points in the month are both new franchise-highs. Individually, Nikita Kucherov already has posted a franchise-best 28 points this month. And Steven Stamkos has set a franchise record by scoring 14 goals in December.
Let's take a closer look at the Stamkos goal surge, which, for all intents and purposes, began on November 29, when he scored a power play goal in the Lightning's 5-4 win over Buffalo. Prior to last night's game against Montreal - a contest in which Stamkos didn't score (although he hit the post during a second period power play) - Stamkos had netted 15 goals in a 13-game span. This came after he opened this season with seven goals in his first 25 games.
There has been some discussion about why his goal scoring is up. It mainly has revolved around two talking points. First, Stamkos is shooting more now than earlier in the year. Second, Stamkos has not been playing on a line with Nikita Kucherov (they were separated a few games prior to the Buffalo contest). Instead, most of December has seen Stamkos on a line with Yanni Gourde and Ondrej Palat - Palat's return from injury occurred on November 29, the very game in which Stamkos' current run began. The idea is that when Stamkos is not on the ice with Kucherov, he becomes more of a shooter than a passer.
Video: NYR@TBL: Stamkos sets Bolts record with ninth hatty
Those points do make sense. Seeing Stamkos shoot the puck the way he has in this past month prompts an observer to agree with both premises. Here's the rub, though. The numbers do not back up either point.
In the opening 25 games of the season, Stamkos posted 74 shots, an average of just under three per game. In the 13 games leading up to the Montreal contest, Stamkos had 38 shots. A similar average of just under three per game.
What about the point about not playing alongside Kucherov? Of Stamkos' 15 goals since November 29, seven have come on the power play. Kucherov assisted on five of those. Kucherov also had assists on three of Stamkos' eight even-strength goals. Those all occurred during partial line changes. These are infrequent instances when Kucherov came off the bench for, let's say, Gourde, before Stamkos changed for Brayden Point. Or vice versa. The two may have been on the ice for only a handful of seconds, but they still teamed up on three of Stamkos' December goals.
So if Stamkos really isn't putting more pucks on net and Kucherov has assisted on eight of those past 15 goals, why does it feel as though Stamkos is shooting more now that he and Kucherov are not on the ice together as much?
In Joe Smith's recent article in the Athletic about Stamkos' tear, Marty St. Louis noted that Stamkos is reading plays very well right now. So he's putting himself in scoring positions on the ice. Then, when the puck comes to him, he's immediately shooting - without hesitation. Many of these shots are going in the net. Fifteen goals on 38 shots averages to a shooting percentage of 39.4%. These have been highlight-reel quality shots. So they've been memorable - and not only because he's looking to shoot in these instances. The goals have been "Stamkos-esque".
Stamkos is - and has been from the moment he entered the league as an 18-year old - one of the best shooters in the game. By NHL standards, a shooting percentage of almost 40% is crazy-high. A player approaching that number might be one who cleans up rebounds in front and puts them into open nets when the goalie is out of position. But Stamkos' goals most often aren't on rebounds in the blue paint. Most of his tallies are shots originating from outside the crease that beat the goalie cleanly. And clearly, he's on a roll right now. Think of a golfer who consistently is putting his approach shots within a few yards of the pin. Stamkos' shot begins with a quick release and it's both hard and accurate. During this stretch, he's scoring from the slot, zipping pucks into the top of the net before the goalie can even react. And on the power play, he's finishing from his "office" at the left circle - yes, the puck is coming to him at the end of a tic-tac-toe passing sequence so the goalie is forced to move from side-to-side. But he's still finishing those one-timers, ripping them just inside the post before the goalie can get over. These are not shots that many players in the league can finish. Stamkos can, however, and he's been putting on an incredible shooting display during his hot streak. Stamkos has talked about the confidence he feels when he's shooting the puck like this - that confidence then breeds more success.
Video: TBL@EDM: Stamkos buries one-timer on power play
So perhaps it would more accurate to state that Stamkos may not be shooting more, but he's putting himself in a position more often to shoot. And when the puck arrives, he's unloading that shot with pinpoint precision and incredible power.
Now, what about the Kucherov element? As just mentioned, Stamkos is feeling confident with his shot and he's moving into prime scoring areas. Kucherov, in those isolated five-on-five moments when he's on the ice at the same time as Stamkos, is delivering the puck right into Stamkos' wheelhouse. That was the case when Kucherov had the primary assist on Stamkos' even-strength goals in Edmonton on December 22 and versus Philly on December 27.
On the power play, of course, Kucherov and Stamkos have remained together on the top unit. Stamkos' seven power play goals over the past month can be attributed to excellent puck movement and Stamkos' aforementioned shot. But perhaps there is another contributing factor. In the game against the Flyers on December 27, Point scored his team-leading 10th power play goal. But it had been his first power play goal since December 3. Point sets up in the slot - and earlier this year, he had been scoring many of his power play goals from that spot. Penalty kill units have had to adjust and recently, Point doesn't have nearly as much room. But when a PK unit has to pay particular attention to one player, someone else on the unit becomes more of a threat. The Kucherov seam pass to Stamkos on the power play, which was effectively closed off by penalty killers earlier this year, has opened back up. Thanks in part to Point's presence in the slot. But also because the five-man power play unit is executing at a very high level. That's given Stamkos the chance to blast pucks into the net on the power play.