The Lightning have stormed out of the gates this season, amassing a league-leading 51 points in their first 33 games. That number eclipses last year's record-setting pace by one point (the 2017-18 Bolts had 50 points after 33 games). It's not just the point total that's been eye-popping, though. It's how they've done it.
There are many factors that have led to this early-season success: a potent offense, great goaltending and excellent special teams, just to name a few. But what has stood out so far - and separated the Lightning from much of the rest of the league - has been Tampa Bay's depth.
This depth has been evident on the blue line, where the Lightning have the luxury of playing a Norris Trophy winner (Victor Hedman) and one of the top defensemen in the league (Ryan McDonagh) on separate pairs. During Anton Stralman's extended absence from the lineup, Erik Cernak has stepped in seamlessly. And the pair of Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev has also had an excellent start.
What has generated so much talk about the league, however, has been the Lightning's forward depth. Look at the goal and point totals. Yes, Brayden Point has 21 goals and Steven Stamkos has 15. With 47 points, Nikita Kucherov ranks among the league leaders. But they aren't the only ones contributing. Both Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde have hit double-digits in goals. J.T. Miller is third on the team with 19 assists. Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph both have nine goals and Cedric Paquette has already eclipsed his goal total from each of the past three seasons.
Video: BOS@TBL: Cirelli scores beautiful SHG to extend lead
So the numbers are impressive. But all of the forwards, used in various line combinations throughout the season, have gone beyond "only" producing goals and points (though that's obviously important). They've consistently dictated play, even when it hasn't necessarily resulted in a goal for a specific player or line.
What does it mean to "dictate play"? In every game, there are specific reasons why one team wins and the other doesn't. Sometimes, a goalie "steals" one - and that did happen for the Lightning on Thursday, when Andrei Vasilevskiy posted 48 saves against Toronto. Sometimes, special teams play is the determining factor. Or one team commits significant and costly mistakes, errors that lead to opposition scoring chances and goals.
Then there is perhaps the simplest reason - one team, for the majority of the game, is able to dictate play and gets rewarded with a victory. Both teams have a plan for how they want the game to unfold. Plans that are in direct conflict with one another! Both teams want the puck. Both teams want to play in the offensive zone. Both teams want to generate scoring chances for themselves and prevent opposition chances. This is the tug-of-war that occurs in every game.
It is in this context that the Lightning have utilized their depth so well. Certainly, the Lightning are a team of speed and skill. But speed and skill alone often aren't enough to dominate games. There's a lot more to the equation. Players need to make the right decision with the puck (where do I go with it?) and then execute that play (after making that decision, did I put it where it needed to be?). This is also true for a player without the puck, especially when it comes to reading a play. As an example, look at how a team can effectively forecheck the opposition to disrupt a clearing attempt. A forechecking player must determine where he needs to go to pressure an opposing player (decision-making) and then get there in time (execution of that play). The Lightning's forecheck has been a big part of their success in controlling action.
Then there's the intangible quality of "hunger". The Lightning forwards have been relentless in their puck pursuit and puck retrieval. In the most simple of terms, they've wanted the puck more than the opponent. Add that hunger to their speed, skill, decision-making and execution and the result spells trouble for the opposition. Especially when all four forward lines are doing it shift after shift.
Video: TBL@CHI: Kucherov backhands puck past Ward
It's very difficult to dictate play for a full game. The other side is going to have moments when momentum is on its side. But in the vast majority of games so far this season, the Lightning have had long segments in which they've applied heavy pressure. So heavy, in fact, that they've virtually overwhelmed their opponent. Essentially all of the action takes place in the other team's defensive zone and the opposition, at best, can only manage a momentary clear before the puck comes back in. The Lightning have literally imposed their will on their opponent. This was most pronounced during the Lightning's record-setting second period in Chicago on October 21st, when they posted an NHL-record 33 shots on goal.
The very best lines in the league are capable of doing this to the opponent, but the Lightning, thanks to their capacity to roll four lines that can maintain momentum, are the rare team that can sustain it over an extended period of time.
Doing this does not always guarantee victory. On November 13, Buffalo goalie Carter Hutton negated the Lightning's flow-of-play advantage with an outstanding performance and the Sabres won, 2-1. As mentioned earlier, Vasilevskiy was the difference in Thursday's game against Toronto, a rare instance this season in which the Lightning weren't able to impose their will on their opponent.
But those games are usually outliers. If you decisively outplay the other team, you're going to win more often than not. And the Lightning have done it in spectacular fashion. Now, they'll try to maintain it as they begin one of their toughest stretches of the regular season. Beginning with Sunday's contest in Winnipeg, the Bolts will play seven of the next nine on the road, visiting both Western Canada (plus Winnipeg) and California in the process.