Through half of the season, the Lightning are the best team in the NHL
On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning played their 42nd game of the 2017-18 NHL season. At the halfway mark, Tampa Bay sports the best overall record in the league, leading in points (63) as well as wins (30). They have the NHL’s leading scorer, the league’s leader in points, and statistically the best goalie in the league.
It really seems that everything has gone right for Jon Cooper’s squad. In the offseason they traded a reliable forward for a rookie defenseman, and Mikhail Sergachev became a critical member of their blue line in less than a month. Coming into the season, they trusted a young goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy to take the lion’s share of the netminding work. Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in just about every notable goaltending statistic. The lines have been fluid throughout the season, with emerging superstar Nikita Kucherov bouncing between the first line with Steven Stamkos and the second with Brayden Point. Both combinations worked extremely well.
There is, despite all the success, a long road ahead for the Lightning. They have half a season to go, as well as what could be multiple months of playoff hockey. During this second half, they will have a target firmly on their backs as the frontrunners of the moment, which will test their championship mettle throughout.
Midseason MVP: Nikita Kucherov
Picking a most valuable player is a difficult task for the Lightning. Steven Stamkos has been fantastic in his return from an injury. Nikita Kucherov leads the league in scoring. Andrei Vasilevskiy was the best goalie in hockey in the first half.
In a way there is no wrong answer among those three players. Stamkos has been a great captain for the Lightning this season, leading a remarkable first line and being the driving force behind so many wins. Kucherov has seemed invincible at times, with a near-mechanical precision in his shots. If they and the other scorers are struggling on a given night, Vasilevskiy has proven more than capable of carrying the team for large chunks of a hockey game.
Kucherov gets the slight edge because he seems like he might end up a frontrunner for the league’s Hart Trophy. If he’s in the early discussion for the league’s MVP, he should be the clear choice for Tampa Bay even in a crowded field.
Most improved player: Vladislav Namestnikov (by Steve Kinsella)
Vladislav Namestnikov is in the midst of a breakout campaign and is the team’s most improved player. He’s already set a career high in goals with 15 and with 33-points (15-18–33) he is just two points away from his career high set in the 2015-2106 season (14-21–35).
Pierre Lebrun of The Athletic (Subscription Required) noted that Namestnikov being just two points behind his career high in less than half a season says, “yeah, the 25-year old forward has arrived.”
Linemate Nikita Kucherov spoke highly of his fellow Russian teammate, telling lebrun. “Now you talk about his progression, but I think he could have done this a couple of years ago for sure, be on the top couple of lines. But it didn’t work out that way. This year he’s finally getting the chance and he’s doing a great job. It’s a lot of fun to play with him. You can see how much he’s enjoying the game right now.’’
Namestnikov was paired with Stamkos and Kucherov last year prior to Stamkos’ injury. This year Namestnikov is having success and credits his linemates. “It’s been awesome,” Namestnikov told Lebrun. “They’re two elite players in the league. It’s just been a fun season so far. The main thing is that we talk off the ice about what we can do better. That’s what helps us have chemistry on ice.’’
Reasons for concern?
As excellent as the Tampa Bay Lightning have been to this point in the season, nobody has ever thrown a parade for a team performing well in the first forty-one games.
Right now, the Lightning would be the clear favorite to win the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record in hockey. That’s a great thing. It should be noted, though, that the Presidents’ Trophy winner does not always fare well in the playoffs. The last time a team finished the season with the league’s best record and then went on to life the Stanley Cup was 2013. The last time it happened before that? 2008. Before that? 2002. It has only happened four times this century that the same team has won the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup.
There are, of course, a myriad of specific and individual reasons why this has been the case, but one reason is that the NHL season is very long, and keeping a team that good for that long is an extremely big ask.
All this amounts to is a pattern, but it is a pattern the Lightning will undoubtedly be aware of.
How would a team go about beating the Lightning as they’re currently composed? That’s hard to say. The Montreal Canadiens won a game at home against the Bolts earlier this week, but it’s mostly because Carey Price made 44 saves. The Boston Bruins beat the Lightning in Boston when the Bruins slowed down the game’s pace, held the puck, and played physically enough to throw the Lightning off their game. That might be a strategy to watch moving forward.
A tough defensive team can take the Lightning out of their quick-strike offense that thrives on taking a lot of shots. The Lightning like to keep a game moving, and a team that can slow matters down provides a contrast that can be difficult to play against.
It speaks to how good the Lightning are that history and a vague idea of a tough defensive team (of which there are few these days) are where one has to go when suggesting anything might not be perfect at Amalie Arena.
One very real thing the Lightning will have to watch out for, however, is the amount of time they spend on the road. Starting on January 20, the Lightning will play fourteen of twenty games away from home, starting with an eight game road trip. They will only return to Tampa for the All Star Game during that stretch. In March, Tampa Bay will get to enjoy long stretches of home cooking, but they will be spending a lot of nights in hotels until then.
Second half games to watch
Right now, the Western Conference points leader is the shocking Vegas Golden Knights in their very first season. Vegas beat the Lightning in a tight contest when the two met in Las Vegas, and on January 18 the Golden Knights make their return trip to Tampa. The Lightning will have a week of rest before that game, and it will certainly be one to watch.
On February 20, Tampa Bay travels to Washington to take on the Capitals in what could easily be a playoff preview. Another playoff preview will be at Amalie on March 20, as the Toronto Maple Leafs come to town for their season finale with Tampa Bay.
The aforementioned Boston Bruins have been tougher than people expected this season, and their style of play proved a challenge for the Lightning in their first meeting. Between March 17 and the end of the season, the Lightning and Bruins play three times. As playoff series favor divisional matchups, these could be games to watch as well.