Tampa Bay Lightning
Record: 43-21-6, 92 points
Playoff position: Second place in Atlantic Division, eight points behind Boston Bruins
The Lightning didn’t have the start to the season that anyone expected but they’ve been one of the best teams in the NHL since mid-December.
The Lightning season turned against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 17. Entering the game, they were 16-12-1, sixth in the Atlantic Division, 13 points behind the first-place Bruins.
In the second period, forward Nikita Kucherov turned over the puck at the Senators blue line, leading to a game-tying goal by Anthony Duclair. Kucherov played one more shift in the period, one shift early in the third, and was benched for the final 17:27 of the period and all 4:41 of overtime, which ended with a goal by Anthony Cirelli that gave the Lightning a 4-3 win.
“We were making decisions and that was what was best for us to win tonight,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game. “[Kucherov is] a huge part of our team … it could’ve been anybody. As a group, we put ourselves in this position. We wanted to win this game tonight, and this is what we’re going with.”
Video: Top 10 Lightning Plays … Thus Far
The move caught the attention of the players, and after two straight losses, the Lightning won 10 in a row. Starting with the first game of that streak, a 6-1 win against the Florida Panthers on Dec. 23, Tampa Bay is the best team in the NHL, going 26-8-2 in 36 games.
Leading them has been Kucherov, who is fourth in scoring since then with 48 points (21 goals, 27 assists) in 35 games. Victor Hedman continued to build on his reputation as being one of the top two-way defensemen in the game with 26 points (four goals, 22 assists) in 34 games while leading all players with a plus-29 on-ice goal differential (49 goals for, 20 goals-against) at even strength.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is putting together a second straight Vezina Trophy-caliber season. He leads the NHL with 35 wins, and since Dec. 23, his .938 save percentage at even strength (minimum 20 games) is first and he’s faced 696 even-strength shots, third in the NHL.
In February, the Lightning traded for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow and signed defenseman Zach Bogosian, adding some grit and toughness that was missing when Tampa Bay was swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round.
Anthony Cirelli: The 22-year-old forward has surpassed his previous NHL best with 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) in 68 games. That production has come starting 45.2 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, tied with Yanni Gourde for second-fewest among Lightning forwards to play at least 50 games. Cirelli has been reliable defensively and leads Lightning forwards in shorthanded ice time per game at 2:49.
Video: TBL@BOS: Cirelli opens scoring with SHG from circle
Tampa Bay Lightning 9, Vancouver Canucks 2, Jan. 7: The Lightning and Canucks each entered Amalie Arena with a seven-game winning streak. The Canucks took a 1-0 lead, but the Lightning scored six times in the second period, including five in a 7:52 span. The win moved them into second place in the Atlantic for the first time since the first week of the season.
Video: Verhaeghe gets hat trick in 9-2 win vs. the Canucks
Most compelling game
Tampa Bay Lightning 5, Boston Bruins 3, March 7: The Lightning showed they can play as physically as the bigger, stronger Bruins in a game with 94 penalty minutes at TD Garden. Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead at 6:50 of the second period and then held Boston to five shots in the final 13:23 of the third after the Bruins got within 4-3.
Video: Shorthanded goals lead Lightning past Bruins
Tampa Bay Lightning