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Lightning sit atop the NHL at the season's quarter mark

Twenty games in, Lightning beat writer Bryan Burns hands out some early season awards

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

As the National Hockey League passes the quarter pole on the season, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves atop the League standings for wins (15), points (32), points percentage (.800) and goal differential (+28).

Clearly, that good start the Bolts emphasized during training camp came to fruition.

Now's when we see if they can keep it going.

With a couple days off before the Bolts strap on the skates again for their contest against the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday, let's take a look back at the best from the first 20 games of the season.

TOP STORYLINE

Video: TBL@SJS: Namestnikov buries pass from Stamkos

90-91-86 wreaks havoc on the NHL
We got a taste of the Vladislav Namestikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov combination last season before Stamkos' unfortunate knee injury derailed the line and, in turn, the Bolts' playoff chances.

Reunited once again in 2017-18, the trio has been serving up mouth-watering highlights all season long.

Stamkos is off to his best-ever start to a season and leads the NHL currently for scoring (10-25-35), power-play scoring (7-8-15) and power-play goals. Kucherov is on pace to score 70 goals this season with a NHL-leading 17 markers through 20 games.

And Namestnikov is poised for his most productive season in the League. He currently shows nine goals, one less than he scored all of last season, and ranks tied for 26th in the League for scoring.

The combination has emerged as the clear early favorite for top line in the NHL.

And it's been the driving force behind the Lightning's best start in franchise history.

Runner up: Andrei Vasilevskiy thrives in role as Bolts' clear-cut No. 1 goalie.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Video: CBJ@TBL: Gourde finishes Killorn's nice saucer pass

Yanni Gourde emerges as a bonafide top 6 forward
Anybody who caught Yanni Gourde's performance for the Syracuse Crunch in the Calder Cup Final could see the youngster would have an impact on the Lightning this season. Gourde, coming off a successful stint with the Lightning over the second half of the 2016-17 season, was the best player on the ice in the AHL championship round versus Grand Rapids after being returned to the Crunch. His impact was immediate and immense.

But coming into training camp, it was unclear how Gourde would fit in with the Bolts. With a number of offensively-talented forwards already on the roster, Gourde's chances of skating on a top line appeared slim. He seemed destined for a third- or fourth-line role, which, as those lines tend to be more defensive or checking in nature, wouldn't necessarily suit his game.

In camp, however, Gourde's skill was so undeniable the Lightning had no choice but to try him out in a top six role.

Put on a line with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, the three have thrived together and have provided the Lightning with two of the best lines in the NHL.

Miss the Triplets?
Consider the Palat-Point-Gourde line Triplets 2.0.

All three players are tenacious puck hounds who bring relentless energy each shift. They're often matched up against the opposition's top scoring line because of their shut-down defensive ability. And they all have a nose for goal and now how to fill up a scoresheet.

Runner up: Mikhail Sergachev earns a regular spot in the NHL and becomes one of the League's top-scoring defensemen.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A PLAYER

Video: DAL@TBL: Stamkos pots scorching PPG on one-timer

Steven Stamkos' four-point night vs. Dallas
Steven Stamkos and Ben Bishop have remained good friends even following the trade that sent Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings at last season's trade deadline. Bishop, who signed with the Dallas Stars in the offseason, chatted jovially with Stamkos outside the Lightning locker room when Bishop returned to AMALIE Arena for the first time as an opposing player on November 16.

Bishop joked that he knew all of Stamkos' moves.

Stamkos countered he'd have to bring some new tricks out of the bag.

The on-ice reunion was much less cordial, at least from Bishop's perspective.

Stamkos netted two goals, including one on the power play, and added two assists to match a career high for points in a single game (4) and record his second four-point night of the season in the Lightning's 6-1 demolition of Dallas.

After the game, Stamkos was asked how it felt to beat his friend and former teammate for two goals.

"It was nice to obviously get a couple, but I'm sure once the dust settles here, I'll give Bish a text and maybe thank him for letting me grab a few tonight," Stamkos said, grinning.

Truth be told, Bishop didn't play all that poorly in his return to AMALIE Arena and made several key stops over 60 minutes.

The Bolts were just that good against their old goalie, scoring on six of their 28 shots.

And on a night of standout performances, Stamkos' shined brightest.

Runner up: Andrei Vasilevskiy records 43 saves to shut out the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0 at Nationwide Arena.

BEST OVERALL GAME

Video: PIT@TBL: Vasilevskiy extends arm to deny Hagelin

7-1 home victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 21
With 15 wins in 20 games, there are a number of contenders for the Bolts' best game.

The 4-3 come-from-behind win over the Washington Capitals in game No. 3 was a good indication the Lightning could have a good squad this year. A 2-0 shutout win in Columbus where Andrei Vasilevskiy made 43 saves also showed what this group is capable of.

But scoring seven goals and blowing out the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins on home ice?

Doesn't get much better than that.

Sure, the Penguins had backup goalie Antti Niemi in net. Niemi, now with Montreal, is on his third team in 2017-18. And yes, the Lightning have seen Niemi three times this season (twice with Pittsburgh and once with Florida) and scored 14 goals on him.

But the Lightning completely dominated the best team in the NHL, regardless of who was in goal.

The Bolts went 3-for-5 on the power play. Steven Stamkos, who finished with four points on the night, netted a power-play marker to pass Vincent Lecavalier for most power-play goals in Lightning history. Nikita Kucherov scored a pair of goals. And Andrei Vasilevskiy nearly posted a shutout, the Penguins scoring with 1:42 remaining for the only positive in a humiliating defeat.

Runner up: Tampa Bay begins its three-game California road trip with a 5-1 victory at San Jose, the Bolts scoring five-consecutive goals after the Sharks scored 25 seconds into the game. 

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