COLUMBUS, Ohio — The calendar turns to December for the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight in Columbus after the team enjoyed the best two-month start in franchise history with a 16-9-1 record and 33 points.
So after two months, exactly what is it that led Tampa Bay to the best start in team history? What is the best way to describe their team identity?
“Speed obviously is our strength,” captain Marty St. Louis said. “I think our collective play is probably our strength right now and ... we have to really fall back on that, so I think it's about how we play inside our system that has been our strength.”
On just about any given night, the Lightning hold an advantage when it comes to overall team speed. They like to try to utilize that speed by pushing the pace of play up the ice, getting behind the defense and trying to grind teams down with a quick pace.
“Right from the start we talked a lot about speed and playing fast, and that's something that we talk about on a daily basis,” forward B.J. Crombeen said. “A lot of teams that we are playing against we feel that we have a lot more speed, especially up front. So we talk about moving the puck quick, get up ice and going after them. That's something that we have shown that when we play well, that's what we do well.
“And we have beaten top teams by being able to do that, not necessarily by matching their size or their weight up front, but we can play fast and our speed has given some of those teams trouble.”
Every team has flaws, some more glaring than others. And in recent seasons, Tampa Bay's defensive play has been glaring, finishing last in goals allowed combined over the past two seasons. In last year's lockout-shortened campaign, the Lightning allowed 3.06 goals per game, and the year before that it ranked last overall allowing 3.4 goals per game.
Yet under Jon Cooper, through 26 games, that has been cut down to 2.5 goals per game.
“We came in to play defense and I think for the most part we've done that this year,” Cooper said. “As a coach you can pick apart everything, even the so-called perfect game, but aside from a few lapses, I really like the way we have played team defense.
“And you can never predict you are going to lose your top goal scorer (Steven Stamkos) but once that did happen, it just tested what our game plan was from the get-go. And if we want to be in the playoff hunt come March and April we have to stick to that plan, and it's been so far so good.”
Without Stamkos, that point of emphasis has been stressed a little bit more, knowing the offensive output might be just a tad less without the top goal scorer in the game sidelined.
“It's maybe a little more of our mindset, but our game plan hasn't changed,” Cooper said. “We have to bear down and play D and so far it's worked.”
Another area Tampa Bay wanted to improve upon is puck possession as Cooper instills the idea that sometimes the best defense is to keep the puck away from the other team. The Lightning are not immune to going back with the puck if it means maintaining possession as opposed to a dump-and-chase approach all the time. But when Tampa Bay does go back they want to be able to come forward with speed into the offensive zone.
“I think we are (but) sometimes we try to be too much of a puck possession sometimes,” St. Louis said. “Sometimes I think we do too much of that instead of just playing more like pushing the pace, pushing the pace, pushing the pace. But when we push the pace with our speed ... really moving the puck and getting 200 feet in a hurry, that's when we are tough to play against.”