Tampa Bay is home to the greatest show on ice

Amalie Arena is the place for sports fans to be in Tampa Bay, especially this season. But who's having more fun, the fans or the Lightning?
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (91), shown here minutes before his three-goal performance against the New York Rangers Monday, is riding a hot streak that has the Lightning owning the NHL's best record at 24-7-1 with 49 points. DIRK SHADD  Times
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (91), shown here minutes before his three-goal performance against the New York Rangers Monday, is riding a hot streak that has the Lightning owning the NHL's best record at 24-7-1 with 49 points. DIRK SHADD Times
Published December 11 2018

TAMPA — Tuesday brought some sobering news about the future of baseball in Tampa Bay. Meantime, the same ol' Bucs are limping to yet another losing season.

How about some good news for Tampa Bay sports fans?

Well, I've got three words for you: Tampa Bay Lightning.

Man, is this team good. Better than good. Fantastic. Lightning fans would love for the playoffs to start right now except for the fact that this regular season has been so much fun. This is special stuff going on right now at Amalie Arena.

Heck, these guys are so good and playing so well that even the players are caught up in the excitement.

"It's the most fun hockey I've ever played,'' Lightning forward Alex Killorn said.

Captain Steven Stamkos added: "Of course, we're enjoying this.''

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh said, "It has been a blast.''

For most of the past five seasons, the Lightning has been one of the NHL's top teams. But it's hard to remember a time during that run when the Lightning has played better than it is right now. Tampa Bay has won seven in a row, making it the third longest win streak in franchise history.

And it's not just how many, but how. Look at how the Lightning is winning and who it is beating.

The Sabres came rolling into town with a 10-game win streak and the new cool kids of the NHL. And the Lightning beat them.

The Avalanche came cruising into the town with the best record in the Western Conference and the Lightning absolutely dismantled it 7-1.

Tampa Bay has won blowouts and shootout and overtimes. It has crushed bad teams and destroyed good ones. It has won close games. It has won games thanks to its power play and won others thanks the penalty kill.

It comes from behind. It gets leads and never lets them go. Every way and any way. That's how the Lightning wins.

Every night, it's a different star. For a while there, Brayden Point carried the Lightning. Then Nikita Kucherov. Now it's Stamkos with five goals in the past two games. One night, a fourth-liner like Cedric Paquette plays the hero and another night it's a kid like Anthony Cirelli.

"When you're winning games in different fashions, that's the sign of a good team,'' McDonagh said. "We've had a taste of everything here during this stretch and it's a good sign that we're finding ways to win.''

To top it all off, the Lightning is doing this without star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. One of the best goalies in hockey has missed the past 15 games and the Lightning has won 12 of those games. That's amazing.

Stamkos said this is the deepest and most complete team he has ever played on. Even he admits that this team seems more special than in past seasons.

"It just feels different this year,'' Stamkos said. "It just feels like anytime you get into a situation in a game when you're down a goal or two you're going to find a way. It's just a matter of time. When it is going to come? That's the feeling you have when things are going well.''

So is the Lightning really this good or is it just riding one of those hot streaks?

"I'd like to think this is how good we are,'' Killorn said. "It seems like things are going our way here. I just think we've been resilient. Being down a goal, two goals, it doesn't affect us. That's rare that you see that in a team where you know you have a chance to come back regardless of the situation.''

While there might be a different (i.e. better) feel about this team, this all didn't just happen in the past couple of weeks. This is a culmination of what the Lightning has been working on for years now.

"This team has been together for a while,'' Killorn said. "We've added some pieces and we've got some young guys that we've added this year. But it has all been building toward this.''

Killorn caught himself when he started to talk about how easy the game seems right now, but it really does seem like it's just that for Tampa Bay: easy.

"Well, the game is not easy,'' Killorn said. "But it feels that we're all in synch.''

Even the man in charge of it, the man who is supposed to keep the Lightning in check can't help but appreciate what he is watching.

"Pretty impressive hockey,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

What makes it even more impressive is that the Lightning is doing this despite a brutal schedule that had it playing 25 games in 48 nights. Give Cooper credit for finding the right balance between rest and practice, hard practices and days off.

"We're just trying to manage their time,'' Cooper said. "You just can't keep playing games. You have to practice in there.''

Yet the Lightning looks fresh every game. It never wears down or looks tired. It seems to get better as the games go deeper.

Eventually, none of this will matter when the playoffs start. And let's be honest, the Lightning can win every game from now until the playoffs start and it won't mean a whole heck of a lot if it doesn't win the Stanley Cup.

But, until then, enjoy the ride. Enjoy the best team in Tampa Bay.

And the best team in hockey.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones