TAMPA — The Lightning has a dynamic one-two punch on its top two lines, with captain Steven Stamkos and wing Nikita Kucherov each having racked up 20 goals.
But it was Tampa Bay's shutdown third line of J.T. Brown, Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan that stole the show in Thursday's 2-1 victory over the red-hot Blackhawks. The trio held top-line Chicago forwards Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Andrew Shaw to two combined shots.
"They were our best line," coach Jon Cooper said.
"They've been unreal," defenseman Victor Hedman said.
"A really big line for us right now," defenseman Anton Stralman said.
Dig deeper into the Lightning's seven-game winning streak — one win shy of tying a franchise record — and you'll find that the Brown-Filppula-Callahan line has played a pivotal role. And that won't change tonight in Sunrise against the Atlantic Division's first-place Panthers, who are three points ahead of Tampa Bay after shutting out the Blackhawks 4-0 on Friday.
The Lightning trio will likely be up against future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau tonight. Been there, done that. The Lightning's line held them to zero shots in Sunday's 3-1 win against Florida in Tampa.
"It's quite a challenge," Callahan said. "It's an opportunity to go against the other teams' top lines, and that's how we look at it. It's something we have to respond to. We know if we do our job, we have a great chance at winning that hockey game. It's exciting to be in that role and I think me, (Brown) and (Filppula) are embracing it."
For Callahan and Filppula, their offense has been fleeting. Both have had 20-plus-goal seasons in their careers but have combined for just 11 this year, Callahan one in his past 33 games. But Cooper said Callahan was the Lightning's best player in the past two games, and it's hard to argue against it. The veteran wing had 10 total shots and nine hits in those games and was a force at both ends of the ice.
" 'Cally' has been unbelievable the last couple games," said Stralman, Callahan's teammate with the Rangers from 2011-14. "He's been out of himself. I've played with him a long time. He's so hard to play against when he plays like (that)."
Said Brown: "I don't know if he's changing his routine or what he's eating pregame. He's been playing really well, and that's how we know he can play. He's setting the bar high for himself."
Filppula is the Lightning's best faceoff man, winning 54.5 percent, and one of its most responsible two-way forwards, which is why he's a key cog on the penalty kill and almost always gets several shifts in overtime. Brown may be the Lightning's most consistent forward this season, Stralman said, his plus-11 tied for second on the team.
After shutting out the Panthers' top line Sunday, Brown, Filppula and Callahan tackled Oilers All-Star Taylor Hall in Tuesday's 6-4 win. Hall had an assist on Leon Draisaitl's goal, but their line was a combined minus-5.
It's not just that Brown, Filppula and Callahan are strong defensively. They're getting extended possession time in the offensive zone, forcing opponents' top-end players to work in their own end.
"Want to play defense? Have the puck," Cooper said. "And that's what they did."
Though with the disadvantage of not having the last change on the road, expect to see the Lightning shutdown line locked in on Jagr & Co. tonight.
"So far, things are going well," Brown said. "But every night is not going to be your night. You're going out against top-notch players. But at the end of the day, that's our job. That's what our team expects out of us. From our standpoint, we've got to accept the challenge. If you can shut them down and end up a plus-1, I think we're going to have a good chance to win."