My first season broadcasting with the Lightning was 2002-03. Heading into that campaign, the Lightning had qualified for the playoffs just once in their first 10 seasons. Big things were not expected from the 02-03 Lightning, but the narrative changed when the team stormed out of the games and finished October with a 7-1-2 record.
The Lightning would go on to win their division that year and earn their first-ever playoff series victory. Of course, the franchise's greatest moment occurred the following season - winning the 2004 Stanley Cup. But going back a year earlier, there was something special and exciting about the Lightning's ascension in the league standings, especially when that rise was somewhat unexpected.
During my time with Bolts, there have two other seasons in which the team greatly exceeded preseason expectations. The 2010-11 and 2013-14 squads, like the 2002-03 team, ended a string of consecutive non-playoff years. Those teams were a lot of fun to watch and Lightning fans reacted with so much enthusiasm to the club's changing fortunes.
In recent seasons, we've seen other teams go through similar transformations. Usually, it's due to some combination of new management and coaching, highly-drafted players making an impact and important free agent additions. The arrival of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner helped Toronto orchestrate a turnaround in the 2016-17 season. Last year, it was playoff-bound Colorado and New Jersey, both of whom enjoyed massive point improvements from the year before.
This season, the Lightning have seen two teams that may be following a similar transformative path. As of Friday, Vancouver occupies second place in the Pacific Division. The Canucks defeated the Lightning at Amalie Arena earlier this year. Honestly, that Vancouver victory was a "goalie" win. The Lightning dominated play for much of the game, but netminder Anders Nilsson stole the game for the Canucks. Still, a win is a win and the Canucks have recorded other quality victories already this year. Rookie Elias Petterson was named the league's Rookie of the Month in October. Then there's Arizona, which began the season losing four of its first five games and didn't score a five-on-five goal until its sixth contest. But the Coyotes' metrics were looking good, even in those early defeats. In other words, they were outshooting their opponents (badly, in some instances) and defending well. It seemed as though it would just be a matter of time before pucks started going in for them. They have been recently. The Coyotes put seven goals on the board against the Lightning, adding to the 12 they'd scored in the four games prior to the contest versus the Lightning. In the game after the victory over Tampa Bay, they popped in five more in a win against Ottawa.
The Lightning's two opponents this weekend - Montreal and Ottawa - also have exceeded expectations early this year. The Habs have 16 points in 12 games while the Sens, with 12 points, are keeping pace with the Atlantic Division pack so far. It'll be the Lightning's first time facing these clubs this year and it'll be interesting to see how they both look. It may be early, but the Canadiens and Senators (along with the Canucks and Coyotes), have given their fans a lot to cheer about already this year.