Before getting to the list, here's a recap of the Lightning's regular season through the first 70 games. There were four distinct parts.
Prior to their trip to Sweden in early November, the Lightning were wildly inconsistent. Some might remember the first month as a time when the team was consistently poor. That wasn't the case. Yes, there were some bad performances. But also several good ones. In fact, one of my top five picks came from the first month of the season.
Next was the segment beginning with the Global Series Games in Stockholm. The Lightning were much more steady during this stretch. Over a six-week span, the team only had two clunkers - a November game in St. Louis and a December contest in Washington. The others fell into one of two categories. Either the Lightning played well and won. Or some critical, isolated mistakes offset their good play and resulted in a loss.
Video: Recharge | NHL Global Series
Then they managed to erase those isolated errors and they took off. Of course, that's the 26-game stretch in which they went 23-2-1.
The final segment came in the weeks prior to the season's pause. Their play dipped. There were several reasons for it. It's difficult to maintain the pace and standard they had set, particularly when they had moved into a secure standings position. They dealt with injuries. And they were in the process of acclimating the players brought in at the trade deadline.
Now to the methodology I used in picking my top five. The Lightning won 43 of 70 games, so there were a lot of options. Obviously, I considered how the team played in the game itself. But also, I took into account the opponent, the location, and the timing. How well was the opponent playing? In the context of the aforementioned four segments, when did the win occur? Did it have an impact on what came next?
The Best Of The Rest - Outside the Top Five
October 10: 7-3 win at Toronto. This was the game that FOX Sports Sun just re-aired. Brayden Point made his season debut, scored on his first shift, and finished with two goals plus an assist. The Lightning were hungry to make amends for their previous game, an overtime loss at Carolina in which they were outshot, 44-13. They dominated the Leafs throughout the night.
November 14: 9-3 win vs. New York Rangers. In their first game back in North America after the Global Series, the Lightning overwhelmed the Rangers. They netted four first period goals, recorded five power play tallies, and outshot New York, 45-23.
December 7: 7-1 win vs. San Jose. Ultimately, the Sharks would struggle later in the season and would fall out of the playoff race. At the time of this game, however, the Sharks were playing what would be their best hockey of the season. They had gone 11-3-1 over a 15-game stretch. But the Lightning blew the game open with a couple of late second period goals and two more early in the third.
December 10: 2-1 win at Florida. I considered putting this game into the top five. Playing the second half of a back-to-back, the Lightning thoroughly smothered the Panthers. Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky single-handedly kept his team in the game. The Lightning posted 48 shots on net and owned virtually all of the puck possession. This was a preview of the sort of game that the Lightning would be producing regularly just a few weeks later.
December 29: 2-1 win vs. Detroit. Similar to the game at Florida on December 10th, the Lightning ran into a hot goalie - Jonathan Bernier stopped 37 of 39 Lightning shots - but otherwise controlled every aspect of the game.
January 7: 9-2 win vs. Vancouver. This game shared some similarities with the blowout wins against the Rangers and Sharks. The Lightning scored goals in bunches - six second period goals, four of which came in the final five minutes of the period. Carter Verhaeghe recorded his first NHL hat trick. The Canucks had entered the game on a seven-game win streak.
Video: TBL@WPG: Cirelli earns hat trick in Lightning win
January 17: 7-1 win at Winnipeg. Like that earlier game at Florida, it was the second half of a back-to-back contest in which the Lightning faced a rested opponent. It was also the last game before the Lightning's bye week, the final contest in a 13-game-21-day grind. But those circumstances didn't adversely affect the Lightning. They built a 3-0 first period lead, effectively taking the energy out of the home crowd. It was another hat trick game, as Anthony Cirelli accounted for three of the team's seven goals.
February 8: 3-1 win vs. New York Islanders. The Lightning had dropped both earlier games to the Isles, who had defended well in each of those previous matchups. On this night, the Lightning were the ones to stifle the opposition. The Lightning held New York to just 18 shots, displaying the kind of suffocating team defense that was a trademark during their 23-2-1 run.
The Top Five
#5 - October 17: 4-3 SO win at Boston. Ok, this was not a perfect game for the Lightning. Their penalty kill, which endured a tough opening month of the season, allowed three power play goals to the Bruins. During five-on-five play, however, the Lightning decisively carried play. The Bruins entered the contest having allowed only six five-on-five goals through their first six games, but the Lightning scored three. Twice they rallied from one-goal deficits. While they ultimately prevailed in the shootout, the big takeaway from this game wasn't the result. It was that the Lightning were able to go into a hostile building against one of the best teams in the league and outplay the Bruins at even strength. This performance provided a glimpse of what was to come months later when the Lightning's game kicked into high gear.
#4 - January 9: 4-0 win vs. Arizona. From a defensive standpoint, this was virtually a flawless performance. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 25 saves to record his first shutout of the season. One of those saves was spectacular - a sprawling stop on a Taylor Hall breakaway in the first period. But the other 24 saves were routine. The Lightning dominated puck possession, so the Coyotes weren't able to go on the attack for much of the game. When Arizona did have possession, the Lightning took away time and space. That allowed them to quickly regain possession. All four of their goals came in the first half of the game, so they had a big, early lead. But they never let their foot off the gas pedal. This win came against an Arizona team that had been playing well, too. The Coyotes brought a four-game winning streak to Amalie Arena that night and the best road record in the Western Conference.
#3 - December 23: 6-1 win vs. Florida. The Lightning were coming off one of those aforementioned clunkers in segment two - a 3-1 loss in Washington on the 21st. They entered the game as the sixth-place team in the Atlantic Division, three points behind the Panthers in the standings. Following the morning skate, Lightning players stressed the importance of this game. A loss would leave them five points behind Florida, one of the teams the Lightning were chasing in the division. Even though the game was played in late December and the Lightning hadn't yet reached the halfway point of the season, one had the feeling that sand was slipping through the hourglass quickly. Despite playing more consistently in this segment of the season, the Lightning hadn't gained significant ground in the standings. So they needed this one. And they got it. In resounding fashion. Point scored in the opening minute. And the Lightning didn't let up. They peppered Bobrovsky with 16 first period shots and took a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The Panthers got one back with a power play goal early in the second, but the Lightning answered with two power play goals of their own before the period ended. The win was significant on several fronts. The Lightning played very well in a critical contest. They moved to within a point of the Panthers in the standings. And it served as a springboard for the next two months. This win was the first in their 23-2-1 run.
#2 - January 11: 1-0 at Philadelphia. This victory, which extended the Lightning's winning streak to a franchise-record-tying 10 straight games, combined the defensive excellence of the Arizona game with the tough circumstances of the Boston contest. Heading into this game, the Flyers had lost only twice in regulation at home. And, as they would show later in the season when they went on a 10-game winning streak of their own, they are an excellent team. The Lightning delivered a virtuoso defensive performance. The Flyers, incidentally, also played very well defensively, so both teams had trouble generating scoring chances. But the Lightning converted on one of them - midway through the second period, Pat Maroon collected a bouncing puck in the slot and snapped it home for the only goal scored in the game. Still, the storyline from this one was how the Lightning shut down Philadelphia's dangerous attack. For most of the first two periods, the Flyers had no room to move with the puck and they ceded the majority of the possession time to the Lightning. In the third period, the Flyers pushed to tie the game and owned more possession, but the Lightning kept nearly all of the shots from the perimeter. Their defensive work included an outstanding penalty kill effort in final few minutes. Vasilevskiy was coming off the shutout win against Arizona and, similar to that game, needed to deliver one big save. He denied an in-close chance from Travis Sanheim in the third period. But the rest of his night was fairly quiet. The Lightning held the Flyers to just 16 even-strength shots.
#1 - November 8: 3-2 win vs. Buffalo (Game One of the Global Series). As much as the 6-1 win over the Panthers on December 23 triggered the Lightning's ascension up the standings, this was the Lightning's most important win of the season. They had gone through, as detailed already, an uneven first month of the regular season. This included losses in two of three games earlier on the trip, which began with games at the Rangers, Devils, and Islanders. They came into the two-game set against Buffalo six points behind the Sabres in the standings. But during a week together in Stockholm leading up to the Buffalo games, the Lightning came together as a group. Most of that took place off the ice during the week before the games. On Friday, November 8, it became evident on the ice. The Sabres actually carried play for the first few shifts before the Lightning grabbed control. Nikita Kucherov scored just over three minutes in and the Lightning never looked back. Many of the elements that would serve as the foundation for their strong team play later in the year were on display. The Lightning won the possession battle. They were structured defensively and hard on pucks. Their forecheck was relentless. Their back pressure from forwards was consistent, so the defensemen was able to gap up in the neutral zone. Sabres goalie Linus Ullmark had a strong game and Sam Reinhart put in a couple of goals (against flow of play), so the final score was closer than it might have been. But make no mistake. This was a decisive and significant statement win. The next night, the Lightning completed a sweep of the Global Series with a 5-3 victory and returned home feeling that they had turned an important corner. They were right, even though they first had to endure a six-week segment in which the result didn't always match up with how well they were playing. But by late December, they had taken flight. And it was in Sweden that the team was able to lay the foundation for that run.