With 20 games played, the Lightning are about to pass the quarter pole of the 2014-15 season. They have racked up 28 points so far, one behind Montreal for the most in the NHL. Here are my thoughts on what has been, for the most part, an excellent start.
Balanced Scoring: The Lightning rank second in the league in average goals scored per game (3.60). They’ve notched seven goals in a game three different times and in 10 of their 20 contests, they’ve netted at least four goals. Sniper Steven Stamkos leads the team with 12 goals, but it’s been the balanced nature of their attack that’s been especially impressive. Nine different players have posted at least four goals and eight players have recorded 10 or more points. This balanced attack has created matchup problems for the opposition, which has been forced to worry about more than just Stamkos’ line.
Over the course of a regular season, teams tend to become stingier. So it may be unlikely that the Lightning will be able to maintain this torrid scoring pace. What won’t change, though, is their ability to receive offense from a variety of different sources. They will continue to be a matchup headache for the opposing side.
Consistency: Lightning players and coaches have stated that, despite the fast start, they feel the team can reach another level. With a couple of exceptions – the 5-1 win against the Rangers on Monday being the most recent example – the Lightning are still striving to produce full 60-minute performances (or close to them) on a nightly basis. By my count, they’ve coughed up only one true clunker (the 7-2 loss in Minnesota on October 25). In all the other games, including those against Chicago and San Jose (contests in which they didn’t like their starts), they’ve dictated play for at least a portion of time.
Playing with a high level of consistency isn’t easy – and it’s especially tough to find early in the season. But it’s encouraging that the players and coaches aren’t satisfied with just getting results. Because they know that when they’re clicking on all cylinders, they’re quite a handful for the opposition. As the Rangers found out on Monday.
Injury Bug: The Lightning’s accomplishments in the first 20 games are all the more impressive based on the significant injuries they’ve had. Victor Hedman was lost in the fifth game of the season. Alex Killorn has missed eight games. Ryan Callahan was out for five. Brett Connolly was hurt in the eighth game. Yet the Lightning have persevered. In particular, the team’s ability to so far carry on without Hedman, their best defenseman, has been one of the biggest storylines of their season.
Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette: Pay close attention to these two players, Lightning fans. They are getting better and better with each passing game. Or, more specifically, playing with increased confidence has allowed them to show what they’re capable of. They have different skill sets – Namestnikov is a puck possession player while Paquette is more of a grinder. But they are both very responsible defensively and each player, when the puck is on his stick, always seems to make the right decision. They’ve earned so much trust from the coaches that they’ve become a regular penalty killing pair. Oh, and they’ve also combined to contribute eight goals and 12 points.
The Schedule: I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear talk about the schedule. All teams can claim they’ve had a tough stretch of the schedule. Either they’ve had a lot of travel. Or they’ve faced a steady diet of elite opponents. And the Bolts’ schedule hasn’t been the toughest in the league. San Jose, for example, just finished an opening stretch of 16 out of 21 on the road.
My point isn’t that the Lightning’s schedule has been more taxing than any other club’s. Rather, it’s that the Lightning have gotten through some of the more difficult parts of their own schedule – and still posted those 28 points. The Western Canadian trip is done, along with their lone road game in Chicago. Now they won’t leave the Eastern Time Zone again until February. The Bolts will play 13 sets of back-to-backs this year. They’ve already knocked out five of them. Meaning that a full quarter of their 20 games played so far have come in the second half of a back-to-back against a rested opponent. By Christmas, they’ll have only five sets of back-to-back left to play.
There are always more challenges – the Lightning have yet to face many of the Western Conference heavyweights. Nor have they seen Metropolitan leader Pittsburgh or perennial powerhouse Boston. There are three road games to play in Montreal. But so far, they’ve done well in navigating through the dicey parts of their early-season schedule.
Looking Ahead: In terms of points gained, the Lightning have taken care of business. What’s exciting for Lightning fans is the team isn’t contented with the fast start. They’re aiming to get better. And that’s a scary thought for the rest of the league.