TAMPA — Suffice to say, seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning sitting at the top of the new Atlantic Division standings one month into the season probably didn’t register with many prognosticators.
Yet, with a 10-4 record and 20 points, Tampa Bay leads the division in the early going of the season, tied in points with Detroit and Toronto while ahead of Boston, Montreal and Ottawa. With that, however, comes this aspect to keep in mind:
It is still early.
But the team that general manager Steve Yzerman has assembled and coach Jon Cooper and his staff have molded has been a surprise in the standings. It has two victories against defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago, as well as wins against Los Angeles, St. Louis and Minnesota.
The way the Lightning have built their record through 14 games has Yzerman feeling optimistic about what he has witnessed.
“Generally, all parts of our game are not bad,” Yzerman said. “I like the speed of our team. I think our defense as a corps has done a pretty good job, they are organized, they move the puck reasonably well. We set out to reduce our goals-against, and for the most part through 14 games we have cut down on that.
“So, I think Jon and our players all feel the same — that regardless of what the record is, there’s room for improvement, but I’m certainly encouraged by a lot of the things that I’ve seen.”
While Tampa Bay’s roster has big names such as Steven Stamkos, Marty St. Louis, Teddy Purcell, Sami Salo and Matt Carle, among others, the Lightning also have counted on a group of rookies. Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio have played solid roles, along with Alex Killorn and Brett Connolly, who are not technically rookies but lack extensive NHL experience.
It’s a route Yzerman wanted to take heading into the season, and though there will be bumps along the road with so much youth, the early experience should provide a payoff.
“Young guys can be little bit unpredictable, but what I do like about this particular group of guys is their work ethic,” Yzerman said. “They are a confident, mature group of young guys. It’s a difficult league, you have to be mentally strong and very mature at a young age to get better as the year goes on. I think these guys are. And I hate to put unnecessary expectations upon them, but we believe in them, and that’s why we elected to give an opportunity to the young guys.”
Perhaps one of the best teaching moments came in the second game of the season, when the Lightning were far from their best but were able to stay in the game against Chicago because of Ben Bishop’s play in goal before pulling out a shootout victory.
“I think we played a little bit in awe of the Chicago Blackhawks; our guys, particularly our younger players, weren’t asserting themselves,” Yzerman said. “I thought it was a good learning experience for us, and particularly for our young guys, that we are playing against very good teams and very good players, that if we assert ourselves and stay organized that we will be able to compete with them.”
While the sailing has been relatively smooth to this point, the schedule will become a bit more rocky in the coming weeks.
Tampa Bay was able to navigate through the first month despite some difficult opponents on the calendar. But once the Lightning face Edmonton on Thursday, seven of the next eight will be on the road, with stops in Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim.
“The schedule has not been easy for us, despite having a lot of games at home, but now I guess I look forward to the schedule coming up,” Yzerman said.
“We have a lot of road games coming up, so you never really feel too good about things.”