It seems as if the Tampa Bay Lightning's victory over the St. Louis Blues last Saturday was the moment their early season surge finally reached eyes beyond the city limits. Taking their two points and heading into a four-day break, the Lightning currently sit atop the Atlantic Division with a 10-4-0 record as they host the Edmonton Oilers Thursday night.
Out of the safety net that was the Southeast Division and dropped into one with the likes of the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators, the Lightning have held their own, especially against the Western Conference going 5-0-0, including two wins over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“Are we the perfect hockey team?,” head coach Jon Cooper asked after beating the Blues. “Not even close, but are we a team that responds to challenges? They do.”
There’s the challenge of a newer, tougher division. The challenge of going to battle with two unproven netminders (more on that in a bit). And then there’s been the challenge of coming from behind, which has seen Tampa win two of the five games that they trailed entering the third period.
Cooper had a 16-game evaluation period at the end of last season after Guy Boucher was fired. The man who has won at every level he’s coached at – AHL, USHL, NAHL – has been given an assist from the Lightning's organizational cupboard. Eight players who were on the ice celebrating the Calder Cup trophy in 2012 with him have played for the NHL club this season. Finding success in this league without developing your own talent is incredibly tough to do.
The man who had four assists in Game 4 that June night for the Norfolk Admirals is no longer with the Lightning, but is tied to their current success.
Playing on a line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis at the beginning of the 2013 season, Cory Conacher was drawing plenty of Calder Trophy buzz. He then cooled off a bit and general manager Steve Yzerman cashed in his chip to try and improve a need that was struggling: goaltending.
The Anders Lindback experiment wasn’t working as planned, so Yzerman flipped Conacher and a fourth-round pick for Ottawa Senators netminder Ben Bishop. Much like the Lindback signing, the move was another gamble. The 6-foot-7 Bishop had only played in 36 NHL games to that point, but this season he's become the team's MVP.
Through 11 starts, Bishop, who's signed through next season, is 10th in the NHL in save-percentage (.925), eighth in goals against average (2.25) and sports a .927 even-strength save percentage. He's grabbed the reigns of the starting position and run with his first crack at winning a No. 1 job in the league.
Stamkos and St. Louis are doing their usual thing, leading the team in scoring, but free agent signing Valtteri Filppula has provided some of the secondary scoring with five goals and 11 points. Teddy Purcell (9 points) and second year man Alex Killorn (12 points), who's on pace to blow past his rookie season total of 19 points, have also helped. The power play (21.4 percent) and penalty kill (85.4 percent) are both seventh in NHL.
Things are clicking early, but as every team experiences over an 82-game schedule, those valleys await. One such could be coming soon.
After the lowly Oilers visit Thursday night, the Lightning play seven of their following eight games away from home -- including a west coast swing and three divisional games -- against teams with a combined 68-31-11 record
For Cooper and his men, it's one more challenge. How will they respond?
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