Coming off of an impressive win against the Washington Capitals, there was no rest for the weary as the Pittsburgh Penguins were in town. The Lightning backed up their previous performance with another strong outing as they toppled the Penguins in a game where the score was much closer than the game itself.
Here are my “5 Things of Note” from the game.
Steven Stamkos had yet another extremely strong game, leading his club to their third victory of the young season. He found himself on top of the possession pile again, with an impressive 67.86 CF%. In the last “5 Things of Note”, I mentioned he hadn’t scored a goal yet this season but you could tell it wouldn’t be much longer. Shortly into the second period of the game, Stamkos struck from his office. His first goal in 331 days. Nearly 11 months since he went down with a knee injury that cost him all of last season. It’s been an incredibly long road back for Stamkos and seeing that puck go in the net made all the hard work worth it. The goal was also a power play marker, which happened to put Steven Stamkos into a tie with one Vincent Lecavalier for most power play goals all time in franchise history with 112. Needless to say, Stamkos will obliterate that record as his impressive return continues.
2) Killorning Me Softly
With elite forwards like Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and young exciting players like Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev getting most of the attention, one guy who is quietly having a great start to the season is Alex Killorn. Killorn is a polarizing player in Lightning Land, mainly because of what some perceive as an extremely bloated contract. The money he makes per year isn’t too far off of market value, however the duration of his deal is worrisome. All of that being said, the Killorn we have seen the first 4 games of the season has been softly spectacular. He has been physical, he has been great on the penalty kill, and he has contributed often at key times in games to the tune of 7 points. Killorn has always been rather streaky, in fact he started off rather hot last season before having a goalless drought of nearly half a season’s worth of games. If Killorn can find his consistency and keep up his current play, not only would he be more than earning his controversial contract, he would be providing Tampa Bay with secondary scoring they will need to have a successful season.
3) Koekkoek Ca Choo
Scoring support will need to come from many areas this year for Tampa Bay to be successful. Last season, outside of Victor Hedman, there was little to no offense provided from the blue line. Slater Koekkoek has always had the skill to make an impact on the score sheet, but it is really hard to do that from the press box or the bench. Playing time has been hard to come by for the young defenseman and that’s putting it mildly. On Thursday, Koekkoek may have forced Jon Cooper’s hand in that department as he scored not only his first career NHL goal, but tacked on a second one for good measure. While I’m not sure if the second goal itself or the celebration after was more impressive to me, I am sure that Koekkoek gave Cooper some extremely strong shifts in the early going and was rewarded not only with the goals, but also with being trusted near the end of the game while defending a one goal lead. That itself, is a huge step forward. They key for Koekkoek is to grab this boost of confidence and run with it.
Looking strictly at the stat lines would make you think Andrei Vasilevskiy is having a really rough start to the season. His goals against average isn’t pretty and his save percentage is average at best. What it won’t show you are all of the 10-bell saves he has made at key moments in every game this season. Thursday was no different as he stoned Hornqvist with a sprawling save on the goal line after a deflected puck put him out of position. Or late in the game with Tampa Bay holding on to a one goal lead, when Kuhnhackl came streaking in on a breakaway and he made sure the puck stayed out of the net. Vasilevskiy still has some things to work on such as his rebound control, but his numbers will improve as the season goes forward and Vasilevskiy has already proven he can more than handle the pressures of the number one workload.
5) Pointless Powerhouses
Back to back visits of powerhouse teams means back to back visits of elite players. Tampa Bay hosted Ovechkin, Crosby, and Malkin over the past two games and held all three future first ballot hall of famers to a combined zero points. While their teams did put up a few goals, the Tampa Bay defense did well in shutting down the top threats on each team and forcing their secondary scoring to come up big. Both the Capitals and the Penguins had valiant efforts from that secondary scoring, but it’s extremely difficult to win games in this league when your big players aren’t playing big. While the season is still very young, if the last two games didn’t put the league on notice that Tampa Bay is going to be a force to be reckoned with this year, they must not have been paying attention. The Bolts dominated even strength play during both games nearly from start to finish and showed the effort that is needed night in and night out to win in the NHL. They have shown they can play with anyone, now we just need to see that consistently night in and night out.
Tampa Bay has had an up and down first four games of the season. They have gone from looking like a bug going towards a windshield the first two games to being the windshield themselves in the last two. Top players are playing like top players. Secondary scoring is producing. Surprise production is appearing at opportune moments. Goaltending is making huge saves at big times rather than allowing deflating goals at the worst times. You can see what this team is made of even in the early goings. It’s going to be a fun rest of the season. Sit back, put your seat back in the upright position, and put your tray table up and lock it. It’s going to be a fun ride.