The Tampa Bay Lightning woke up Wednesday morning 16 points clear of the second-place team in their division, 15 ahead of the next best team in their conference and 10 points better than the second-best team in the NHL. All of which means this regular season is rapidly turning into a more of a coronation than a competition for the Presidents’ Trophy. We might be getting into magic number territory pretty soon. Heh-heh.
But then again, this is roughly the same group that went into Jan. 1 of last season atop the NHL standings and 10 points ahead of the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs for first in their division. Not only did the Nashville Predators and Winnipeg Jets pass them for first in the overall NHL standings, the Lightning almost ended up losing their hold on the Atlantic Division, finishing just one point ahead of the Bruins.
The Lightning didn’t lose a game in regulation time in the month of December. They have a 19-2-1 record in their past 23 games and with a record of 36-9-2, the Lightning are on pace for 63 wins, which would be an NHL record. They’re also on pace for 129 points, which would put them tied for third all-time, albeit stacking themselves up against teams that had shorter schedules and did not benefit from overtime and shootout wins. But it’s pretty darn impressive, nonetheless. Like any good team, the Lightning have hit a few bumps in the road and won games they probably shouldn’t have. That happened Saturday when they prevailed over the Buffalo Sabres by a 5-3 score, largely because they scored their way out of a lot of trouble. They were dreadful in a 5-1 loss the next day to the New York Islanders and beat the Dallas Stars 2-0 on Tuesday night in a game where Stars captain Jamie Benn minced no words when pointing out the margin between the two teams. “Our power play was sh— and that was the difference,” Benn said.
But the Lightning maintain this year will be different. There will be no letting up on the gas pedal in 2018-19 they say, no repeat of last season when they had to pick up seven of 10 points in their last five games to hold off the surging Bruins. They steadfastly maintain they have learned their lesson from that.
And there are a couple of indicators that the lesson has sunk in for them. Going into a their three-game trip to California at the end of December, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was concerned about his team’s goals-against. “We were the greatest show on ice,” Cooper said. “And, no, that’s not going to win.” In their first two games of that trip, the Lightning gave up just three goals. After giving up five against San Jose, the Lightning allowed just one goal in their next two games.
Another indicator came after that 5-2 loss against San Jose, their first regulation loss in 17 games. Cooper said he came into the room and told the team to take a breath, that they were going to lose games every once in a while and this would be an opportunity to begin a new streak. But he also knew that before the door closed behind him, his players were not buying what he was selling. “When we went on that 15-0-1 stretch, we just didn’t want that feeling of losing,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “And when we had that loss in San Jose and guys were genuinely pissed off that we lost. It wasn’t like, ‘OK, take a breath, the pressure’s off.’ We were pissed and we came out and won the next couple and we want to just keep doing that.”
For the Lightning, it’s not only about finishing first overall and winning the Presidents’ Trophy, because of the 32 times the trophy has been awarded, the team winning it has gone on to win the Stanley Cup only 25 percent of the time. It’s about establishing a way of playing that will be conducive to playoff success. “I as a coach learned it from last year,” Cooper said. “We got hot and rode the wave, probably didn’t practice as much, went on and don’t fix what’s not broken, but really there was stuff that was broken. So we evolved. I feel like we’ve learned from last year. It was like, ‘OK, we are going to practice here. This is going good, but this is creeping into our game. Let’s end this.’ ”
The Lightning also acquired major pieces in defenseman Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller at the trade deadline last season. With them fully integrated into the lineup and newcomers Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph in the mix, Stamkos said there’s much more a sense of stability in the dressing room this season. “It’s a different feel this year,” Stamkos said. “This is the deepest we’ve been here in Tampa for as long as I can remember. So that helps.”