The first weekend of November is here, which means the first month of this 2018-19 campaign has come to an end. For the two biggest stars on the Tampa Bay Lightning that might be a good thing. This time last year Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov had combined for 45 points following the first 13 games last season and were crowned the top two stars for the month of October.
Tampa Bay Lightning Strong Start: Top Line Ready to Unload?
Fast forward to this season where the Lightning left the Bell Centre Saturday night with a 4-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens in their 13th contest of the season. Stamkos tallied two goals, and Kucherov recorded an assist on both of those goals which brings the season total to a combined 24 points for the duo. Every player over the course of the season will have scoring droughts or slumps but don’t think these two are necessarily in that category as we have seen flashes of exceptional play. Sometimes it seems forced to see a cross-ice pass between Stamkos and Kucherov that leads to the puck going the other way instead of being a little more selfish by taking the opportunity to get the puck to the net. After a tough first game of the season against the Florida Panthers, J.T. Miller has gone from being placed on the fourth line to working his way back to that top line creating opportunities both at even strength and on the power play by making a home for himself near or in front of the net. It is only a matter of time before Stamkos and Kucherov get clicking on all cylinders and when they do, it will make this team that much more dangerous and difficult for opposing teams to contain.
Oh, My Gourde!
We have seen head coach Jon Cooper be able to roll all four lines and receive key production from a mix of contributors on the ice that has propelled his team to the top of the Eastern Conference without having to rely primarily on the top line to contribute to the goal scoring. Of those players, certainly forwards Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point are making their presence known every time they step out onto the ice. Gourde, 26, signed a six-year extension on Friday with the Lightning, is the type of player that continues to put in the work. He has rightfully earned his spot in the top-six and has as much of an impact on the play away from the puck as he does with the puck.
Point, 22, a third-round draft pick back in 2014, now in his second full season with the Lightning after a phenomenal rookie season where he put up 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) in 82 games played. This season he has picked right up from where he left off a season ago and do not be surprised to see his point total creep even higher at the end of this season because of the player he is flourishing into in this league.
Point is currently in the final year of his entry-level contract and will become a restricted free agent this summer. However, now with Gourde’s extension complete, Lightning general manager Julien Brisebois can turn his attention to Point and keep this young nucleus of this club together maintaining their ability to be a contender for the Stanley Cup for years to come.
Special Teams has been Special
The Lightning power play is certainly easy to find near the top of the league each year but when it comes to the penalty kill it has been a little tougher to find them. Last season, it was the indecisiveness and incorrect outlet pass to move the puck out of the zone while killing off a penalty. As a result, the opposing team has been able to hold the play in the zone at the blue line or worse intercept the pass in the middle of the ice and quickly turn it into a scoring opportunity. There is a different feel that surrounds this team that seems to be much harder on the puck carrier and having a sense of urgency to get the puck out of the zone without hesitation by slapping the puck around the boards or utilizing the space above the ice by lifting it up and out of the zone. The Lightning has been able to kill off 46 of 49 times shorthanded ranking their 93.9% penalty kill first overall in the NHL slightly ahead of the Arizona Coyotes (92.1%). We will have to wait and see how long this level of execution is sustainable as the season wears on but compared to last season’s 28th ranked penalty kill this is a significant improvement.
Tampa Bay seems more focused on the importance of getting out to a good start during these first 13 games so far this season. With some bumps and bruises along the way, this team has that special fire inside that is ready to be unleashed. A team trying to get over that hump losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final back in 2015 and losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016 and 2018, could this be the type of play that has been the missing piece that finally helps the Lightning earn their franchise’s second Stanley Cup?