The Tampa Bay Lightning returned to Amalie Arena on Thursday following an eight-day road trip in which the team finished 3-1-0 and catapulted to the top of the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings.
The talk of the NHL of late has been the Triplets line, and with good reason considering the trio of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov have accounted for 24 points combined (7 goals, 17 assists) over the past four games.
The line first formed in Winnipeg on October 24, necessitated by injuries to Brett Connolly and J.T. Brown. Since joining, the line has remained together pretty much ever since and has produced an astounding 107 points in 35 games.
“Those three guys have had a lot of great chemistry,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “For us, the good thing right now is we’re winning games, and, for the most part, they’re the ones that are contributing. We know other lines are going to step up, other guys are going to step up eventually, and that’s when you become even more dangerous as a team. I just told them to ride that wave as long as you can because it’s definitely fun to be on.”
Asked if he feels any less pressure to score with the Triplets doing most of the heavy lifting currently, Stamkos said his approach always remains the same.
Stamkos leads the Lightning in scoring and is fourth in the NHL with 21 goals but has netted just two in the past eight games.
“I put all the pressure on myself anyways, whether other guys are stepping up or things are going great for me or things aren’t going well,” Stamkos said. “…I think when things aren’t going well, it’s easy to get frustrated at times, but when you do have other guys that can step up and produce, usually it results in more wins for your team. When we’re winning, I think everyone’s definitely (happier) in this room, and things can get pushed aside as far as individual success because the team is doing well.”
the four-month, lower-body injury to Radko Gudas, defenseman Nikita Nesterov was recalled from Syracuse and made his NHL debut for the Lightning on December 31 at Buffalo.
Nesterov has skated in two games for Tampa Bay, and Cooper said since joining the lineup, the 21-year-old Russian has made a smooth transition from the AHL to the NHL.
“You never really get an appreciation for him during games until you watch the game that night,” Cooper said. “He was always up in the play. His gaps were terrific. He can really shoot a puck. He was just aware all over the ice. He was breaking a puck out at one end and he was playing offense five seconds later, 200 feet from our net.””
Cooper said he’s been most impressed with Nesterov’s skating ability.
“With the loss of Gudas, we need guys to be able to step in, and he clearly has proven that he has that ability. Now, he’s only played two games, so we’re not anointing him the Norris (Trophy), but I really like his development, and it’s a tribute to (Crunch head coach Rob Zettler) in Syracuse. He’s done a great job with him.”
Lightning defenseman Mark Barberio said the team’s latest road trip in which it went 3-1-0 and defeated Montreal, at the time tied for first in the East, was important for the Bolts’ confidence away from Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay is 15-4-1 at home and 11-8-3 on the road.
The Bolts 10 away wins in regulation and overtime ranks tied for fourth in the NHL.
“We’re just trying to keep this rolling,” Barberio said. “It’s important that we take care of business at home, and I think we’ve done a good job of that so far this year. I think the last road trip was a good stepping stone because I don’t think we were doing as well on the road as we would have liked.”
Since beginning December with a sub-par 4-5-2 record, the Lightning have reeled off wins in six of their last seven games.
“Every season, it’s cliché but there are ups and downs,” Barberio said. “I know in December we were going through a bit of a down, but we were still working hard and doing the right things. We just weren’t really getting the bounces. But, if you stick with it and stick to playing smart hockey, you’re going to get rewarded.”