Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: What’s not to like about Lightning’s start?

BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

"It’s just the start," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said.

But how can you not like what we’re seeing from the Lightning? It has jumped out hungry, as if it wants to squash last year’s disappointing playoff miss right out of the gate.

This season could be special.

Jon Cooper and his players are 6-1-1 through eight games. Tonight they have a chance to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at Amalie Arena for the second time in 10 days. The Lightning blanked John Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night behind Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 43 saves, great team defense and the first two goals of what should be a profoundly long NHL career for 19-year-old rookie Mikhail Sergachev.

"I think the great thing is we still have more to offer," captain Steven Stamkos said.

"The start, for me, means a little more just in who we’ve played," Cooper said. "I know it’s early, but we took a couple of monkeys off our back. Because we didn’t beat Pittsburgh last year, we didn’t beat Columbus last year, and we barely ever beat St. Louis. Coming off a season where we missed the playoffs by one point — you never know where we lost that point — it’s good to point munch to start the season."

A win tonight and the Lightning would match the best start in franchise history, going back to the 2003-04 season, when the Lightning was 7-1-1 after nine games and, oh, won the Stanley Cup.

Note of caution: The Lightning broke fairly well last season, 5-2, and missed the postseason.

"It hasn’t been perfect," Stralman said. "We’ve given up too many shots, too many chances. We probably shouldn’t have won a few of these games. But that’s something good teams do, find a way to win."

There are still going to be slides this season. Make no mistake. But it was important that this team get off to a good start, especially after last season, so it doesn’t feel like it’s chasing early.

Kucherov is chasing greatness. The 24-year-old wing scored goals in his first seven games and entered Friday as the second-leading scorer in the league, with eight goals and 13 points. Dead ahead of him: No. 91. Stamkos hasn’t quite hit his stride but still has 12 assists and 14 points.

"What I like about Kucherov’s start is that I saw that kid land in Tampa in July," Cooper said. "I hadn’t seen a player do that in my years here, come here in July and get on the ice five days a week. I was really excited. Part of you as a coach is going, ‘Don’t burn yourself out, kid.’ But I loved it. It showed character. It showed everything you want in a player who is pushing himself to be better. We’re reaping the rewards."

Then there is the play of the 23-year-old Vasilevskiy, who has six wins, more than any goaltender in the league, and a .929 save percentage.

"But we have to start leaving a lot of these games without saying our goaltender was our No. 1 star," Cooper said.

But how do you not like this start?

You’d maybe prefer 2-5-1?

Note: Kucherov (body maintenance, according to the team) did not practice Friday.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029

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