Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Hot-starting Lightning gaining confidence

TAMPA — Lightning coach Jon Cooper knows his team isn't perfect.

"Not even close," he said.

But Cooper said it's a group that responds well to challenges, which Tampa Bay did again Saturday night, beating the Blues, one of the league's best teams, 4-2.

The Lightning (10-4-0) is off to a hot start. This is the quickest into a season in franchise history that the team has recorded its 10th win. It is tied for first place in the Atlantic Division with 20 points. It doesn't play again until Thursday against the Oilers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Goalie Ben Bishop said the Lightning wants to be in "the same category" as playoff-contending teams and by beating the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks twice, the Kings and the Blues, it has garnered confidence.

"I think any time you face a challenge, you want to conquer it,'' center Steven Stamkos said. "Any time we play teams that are known to be very good in this league, we come out with a great effort. We have to start to find a way to do that with consistency, and I think we are starting to get that.

"We're not satisfied yet. We're happy with the way we're playing, but it's that relaxed, confident attitude. We know it's a long year."

Finding stability in net is a big reason for the early success. Bishop, 6 feet 7 and 209 pounds, has played like a No. 1 goalie, going 9-2-0 with a 2.15 goals-against average. Retired NHL goalie Darren Pang, a Blues color commentator, said Bishop is emerging into the kind of player St. Louis envisioned when it drafted him in the third round in 2005.

"His ability is special," Pang said. "You can't find a guy that's 6-7, 6-8 that can move and catch and play the position like a small athlete. It just goes to show how long it takes to get to this level and be able to handle what's required to be a No. 1 guy. When you're handed it, there's a lot of responsibility and a lot of pressure, so I'm really pleased with the way he's handling it."

The Lightning can score, too, with Stamkos (11 goals) and Marty St. Louis (seven) leading the way. But how Tampa Bay has played defensively has been the difference.

"We know we've got a lot of firepower on our team," Stamkos said. "Our Achilles' heel has been the other end of the rink, and we're taking care of that this year, and I think that's why we have a 10-4 record."

The Lightning has had some rough moments. It has two losses to the Bruins, one of which was an embarrassing 5-0 home defeat Oct. 19. It made a couple of glaring mistakes in a loss to the Devils last week. But Cooper has liked his players' "businesslike" approach, not complaining about problems and finding solutions.

And in Saturday's win, Cooper saw progress compared to previous games against playoff-contending teams.

"We've played some of these upper-echelon teams and we've somehow garnered some points from them, but … you can say we got outplayed in some of these games when we didn't pick up points," Cooper said.

"And I didn't think we were outplayed (Saturday). I thought it was an even hockey game. That's some progress, cause we're playing an elite team, and I think we more than hung with them. The two points are still the same, but the question isn't being asked, 'Do you feel fortunate you got those two points?' And I think that's big for us."

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