TAMPA — For as much as captain Steven Stamkos jokes he’s a playmaker now, let’s not forget one thing:
The superstar still has one heck of a shot.
The Red Wings knew this, of course, yet there was Stamkos in Thursday night’s 3-2 win, wide open in his trademark power-play home, the left circle. For years he has been the Lightning’s No. 1 option with the man advantage, opponents doing all they can to take him out.
But with Nikita Kucherov, the hottest player in the league, in the opposite circle, Detroit had to pick its poison. Four Red Wings converged on Kucherov, who found Stamkos for a one-timer into an empty net. The look on Dylan Larkin’s face said it all, the exasperated Red Wings forward flipping his head up to the ceiling in frustration.
Tampa Bay’s franchise-best 9-1-1 start has been fueled by many things, including the league’s top-ranked power play, which has six goals in the past three games.
"Teams are going to have to decide who they want to overplay," Stamkos said. "They’ve at times overplayed me and ‘Kuch’ has been able to walk in and shoot. That play (against the Red Wings), they overplayed him and I got an open net off a great pass. The power play has been clicking so far, and it’s a reason we’re (on a roll).
Kucherov and Stamkos tied Marty St. Louis for the franchise’s longest season-opening points streak at 11 games. Kucherov racked up his league-leading 12th goal, also on the power play.
The Red Wings have to be wondering, "How the heck do we beat these guys?" This was Tampa Bay’s ninth straight win over the Atlantic Division rivals, but coach Jon Cooper said this one was "night and day" different from the Lightning’s 3-2 win in Detroit a few weeks ago. In that game, at the new Little Caesars Arena, the Red Wings likely deserved a better fate, at least a point.
But despite the Red Wings taking a 1-0 lead in this game, the Lightning was the better team. Detroit opened the scoring with a short-handed 2-on-1 goal by Frans Nielsen. That was sparked by a turnover by Stamkos, who tried to force a cross-zone pass to Kucherov.
Stamkos has said that with Kucherov so hot, he has a tendency to try to get him the puck. Kucherov got his chance a few minutes after Detroit scored, ripping a wrist shot past goalie Jimmy Howard, who was screened by Vladislav Namestnikov.
"We were just trying to create chances off their mistakes," Kucherov said. "We use them, and it’s been good so far."
That was enough for goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who picked up his eighth straight win, having started 10 of the Lightning’s 11 games. He said he wasn’t perfect, but the Lightning will take this type of 29-save effort every night.
Vasilevskiy has a penchant for timely saves, and he made big stops on Henrik Zetterberg in the first period and a point-blank save on Andreas Athanasiou with a few minutes left in the second, preserving a 1-1 tie.
"I got lucky," Vasilevskiy said.
He also got some help. Though it won’t be in the box score, Alex Killorn’s relentless final shift helped seal the win, killing off nearly 30 seconds of a Red Wings 6-on-4.
"You need shifts like that. Guys need to step up," Stamkos said. "It’s been a collection of guys every night."
But it is Stamkos and Kucherov who have often stolen the show. They’re 1-2 in the league in points, Stamkos with 21 (17 assists), Kucherov with 19. The next closest are the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, the Blues’ Jaden Schwartz and the Flyers’ Jakub Voracek with 14.
"Two superstars and they’ve got great chemistry," Howard said of Stamkos and Kucherov. "We all know that. It’s no surprise."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Detroit, Nielsen 1, 14:18 (sh). 2, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 11 (Killorn, Hedman), 16:33 (pp). Penalties—Green, DET, (slashing), 2:19; Hedman, TB, (slashing), 8:57; Abdelkader, DET, (slashing), 13:59; Detroit bench, served by Frk (too many men on the ice), 16:24.
Second Period—None. Penalties—Brown, TB, (delay of game), 2:53; Kronwall, DET, (interference), 6:56; Mantha, DET, (roughing), 12:20; Sergachev, TB, (cross checking), 12:20; Nyquist, DET, (interference), 13:25.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 3 (Kucherov, Sergachev), 6:22 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Point 4 (Palat, Gourde), 17:04. 5, Detroit, Nielsen 2 (Abdelkader, Nyquist), 18:11 (pp). Penalties—Nielsen, DET, (slashing), 4:52; Kunitz, TB, (slashing), 10:24; Sergachev, TB, (hooking), 17:36; Kucherov, TB, (holding), 18:37. Shots on Goal—Detroit 9-10-12—31. Tampa Bay 14-12-12—38. Power-play opportunities—Detroit 1 of 5; Tampa Bay 2 of 6. Goalies—Detroit, Howard 3-3-0 (38 shots-35 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 8-1-0 (31-29). A—19,092 (19,092). T—2:26.