Before the start of the 2020-21 season, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stressed the importance of getting off to a strong start, particularly in light of the shortened 56-game schedule.
The regular season would be a sprint, not a marathon like year's past, and jumping out of the blocks quickly would be imperative to finishing as one of the top four teams in the division and qualifying for the playoffs.
And that's just what's happened for the reigning Stanley Cup champion Lightning. They're 3-0-0 for the seventh time in franchise history following a 3-2 overtime victory in Columbus Thursday night and are one of only three teams in the National Hockey League along with Vegas and Florida yet to lose in regulation, overtime or a shootout.
The Lightning are getting contributions up and down the lineup. Eight different players have scored a goal. Fourteen have at least one point. All four lines have chipped in a goal following Mathieu Joseph's go-ahead tally late in the second period in Columbus.
Video: Cooper on match-up with Blue Jackets
The Bolts are being led by their superstars. Steven Stamkos has returned from the injury that robbed him of the final seven games of the 2019-20 regular season and nearly the entirety of the playoffs to pace the Lightning offensively with two goals, four assists and points in all three games. Following a season opening win over Chicago, Stamkos said he's feeling the best he has physically in a long time.
Brayden Point has picked up where he left off in the postseason, when he opened eyes around the League to his elite-level talent, and provided the game-winner in overtime at Columbus. Victor Hedman has been his usual workhorse self on the back end, munching major minutes and contributing heavily offensively. And Andrei Vasilevskiy has wins in three-straight games to open the season for the first time in his career, giving up two or fewer goals in each.
The Lightning have everything clicking right now, and that has Cooper pleased. But beyond the wins, it's the effort level they've sustained throughout the start, even coming off a Stanley Cup and with an unexpected long layoff thrown into the early-season calendar because of rescheduled games due to COVID-19, that is most pleasing to the nine-year Bolts bench boss.
"People talk about the Stanley Cup hangover. Are the guys going to be into it? Are they going to be giving 100 percent? Are they going to try to skate through the early part of the season? And that just hasn't been the case with us," Cooper said. "It is such a small sample size, and I'm not judging this on wins. We may not be 3-0 and I'd be saying the one thing about our team is we're giving an effort. Look no farther than last night when we get scored on in the first 30 seconds or whatever the game was, and we just kept turning up our game, turning up our game. We didn't roll over Columbus by any means. It was a good hockey game. I thought we just worked."
The other area where Cooper's team is outperforming even his own expectations?
Through three games, the Lightning have given up just five goals total. Their 1.67 goals allowed average ranks second in the NHL behind only the Islanders (1.50).
Cooper has used the two or fewer goals as his benchmark for what's necessary to be a championship caliber team. If you only give up two, more often than not you're going to win the game.
The Lightning only allowed 2.28 goals per contest during their 25-game run through the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that resulted in them lifting the Stanley Cup.
The Bolts have started 2020-21 even stronger in that regard.
Video: Rutta on Bolts 3-0 start to season
"We've given up, what is it, one goal, two goals, two goals, and so when you're only going to give up two goals or less you're really giving yourself a good chance to win the game," Cooper said. "I know everyone loves those 6-5 shootouts, but if we can keep holding teams to one or two goals a game, I like that to start off our season."
The Bolts are scoring at their usual pace too. This season, they've posting 4.33 goals per game. They've led the League for goals each of the previous three seasons, so scoring has never really been an issue with this team. But when you combine their typical scoring prowess with a stingier-than-ever defensive effort, the result is opponents are going to have a tough time dethroning the reigning champs.
There's a lot to like about how the Lightning have started 2020-21, and it's not just because they're 3-0-0 and have banked six of a possible six points.
"We have six points. That's huge for us. That's really good," Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta said. "As far as the play, I think there's still some aspects of our game that we can clean up and we will clean up. It's a process."