By Dominic Muscarella
Steven Stamkos and his NHL-leading 29 points have the Lightning in first place. (Courtesy of Twitter)
A quick look at the NHL standings will reveal a few surprise teams at or near the top of their respective divisions, like the New Jersey Devils, Vegas Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets. However, standing over these teams and the rest of the hockey world is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who sit deservedly in first place in the NHL with 28 points. This pace is a noticeable increase over last season, when the team earned 94 points and just barely missed out on a playoff spot. At 13-2-2, Tampa is on pace for 135 points, and while this expectation might be a bit high, there are several reasons to believe the Lightning will retain first place throughout the course of the season.
Tampa Bay has the best goal differential in the NHL thus far at +24 and is nine higher than the second-best goal differential, held by the Los Angeles Kings. They’ve had two separate four-game win streaks thus far and are working on a third, allowing the team to rack up points quickly and stake themselves a lead in the Atlantic Division.
The Lightning are inseparable from their captain Steven Stamkos. After signing an eight-year deal for $68 million at the beginning of last season, only to tear his meniscus in that same season, Stamkos has returned with a vengeance. The Lightning captain has an NHL leading 30 points on eight goals and 22 assists. Earlier in the season, Stamkos passed Vinny Lacavalier for most power-play goals in Lightning history at 113, and tied Martin St. Louis’ Lightning point streak record to start a season at 11 games. Alongside Stamkos is linemate Nikita Kucherov, who is one point behind Stamkos for the NHL lead at 29, but leads the NHL in goals scored at 16. The two have become the most feared combo in the NHL and for good reason, as they have combined for nearly sixty points on the season thus far and have shown no signs of slowing down.
Tampa has been strong in the net as well, as goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has taken the starting role full-time following the trade of Ben Bishop to the Kings last season. That trade has paid off very well for the Lightning, as while Bishop has been solid for his new team in the Dallas Stars with a .915 save percentage, Vasilevskiy has been even better with a .928 save percentage, good for eighth in the league. The goalie is first in the NHL in wins, and while that might reflect the talented team around him in addition to his individual success, his early-season results have allowed sixth-year coach Jon Cooper to avoid starting backup Peter Budaj, whose struggles in the NHL have been well-documented.
On defense, Victor Hedman has provided his usual strong presence for the Bolts with 13 points, and recently acquired 19-year-old Mikhail Sergachev has made the Johnathan Drouin trade look justified from a Tampa Bay perspective. The former Canadien has 12 points and very solid possession stats on the season. Former Ranger Anton Stralman has been his usual strong defensive self as well.
The Lightning made the Stanley Cup Final in the 2014-2015 season, and while there’s still over three quarters of the season to play before thoughts of the Stanley Cup should be had, it’s tempting to think about.