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What we’ve learned so far this season about the Lightning

Throw out the 7-1 loss at Arizona, which was almost expected because of its spot in the schedule, and the Lightning has been superb so far.
Between Ryan McDonagh, pictured, and defending Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, the Lightning is one of the few teams that can claim two true No. 1 defensemen.  [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Between Ryan McDonagh, pictured, and defending Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, the Lightning is one of the few teams that can claim two true No. 1 defensemen. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 28, 2018

The Lightning has played 10 games. Five at home. Five on the road.

So now is the perfect time to look back and look ahead. Here's what we've learned so far about this Lightning team.

It's good. Really good.

Throw out the 7-1 loss at Arizona, which was almost expected because of its spot in the schedule, and the Lightning has been superb so far. Even with the debacle against the Coyotes, the Lightning is 7-2-1, which is the kind of hot start it preached about all through training camp. It's the kind of start you need if you want to have a stress-free ride to the playoffs.

The seven victories included a blowout against Columbus (8-2) and tough-as-sandpaper victories over Colorado (1-0) and Vegas (3-2). It shows the Lightning can win pretty much any style, but especially defensively. Which leads us to the next thing we've discovered.

The defense is excellent

From top to bottom, this might be the best defensive corps the Lightning has ever had. When Victor Hedman returns from injury, the Lightning once again will have one of the top defensive units the NHL.

Hedman is the defending Norris Trophy winner, and Ryan McDonagh is not far behind Hedman. He has been excellent this season and, like Hedman, can be considered a No. 1 defenseman. Not many teams can boast having two No. 1 defensemen.

Meantime, veterans Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn show no signs of slowing down. Girardi and Coburn have had questions about their age and declining play, but both have seemed to find the fountain of youth over the past year and are playing some of the best hockey of their careers, partly because coach Jon Cooper isn't overusing them.

Mikhail Sergachev still has some growing pains (he was a minus-6 Saturday night in Arizona), but he also continues to show flashes that he is on his way to be a top-pair defenseman in this league.

The defense has been so good that former first-round Slater Koekkoek, who is a solid player, wasn't able to crack the lineup until Hedman got hurt.

The special teams are special

The Lightning's penalty-killing unit has been near the top of the league all season, including a stretch of killing off 32 of its opponent's first 33 power plays. That, of course, isn't going to continue all season. But it's the one area where the Lightning struggled last season, and it has turned into a strength so far this season.

The power play, too, has been solid and is always dangerous. It's good enough to win games by itself.

Good goaltending

What else would you expect? Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best in the business and is, again, playing like it. Backup Louis Domingue had a rough go of it Saturday in Arizona, although he could hardly be blamed for that mess. Overall, with Vasilevskiy on pace to probably play 60 to 65 games and Domingue proving he is a capable No. 2, the Lightning's goaltending will steal plenty of games with good play and almost never lose a game with soft play.

The Lightning will get better

Here's the thing: the Lightning is 7-2-1 and still hasn't played its best hockey. Offensively, no player has really caught fire just yet, but scoring hasn't been a problem. That shows just how deep this team is. All four lines are capable of creating offense.

Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are off to slow starts in terms of the score sheet. It wouldn't be surprising if Stamkos starts to tail off a bit from his past scoring days. He likely is no longer a threat to score much more than 30, if that. But his passing game has improved significantly over the past couple of seasons.

Meantime, Kucherov is simply too talented to not go on a scoring run soon. This guy is a 100-point a season player and, eventually, the points will start flowing.

The coaching has been good

Cooper is working hard behind the bench and has been masterful juggling lines and finding the right combinations. He's not acting impulsively, but he also isn't hesitating when something needs shaken up.

So, in summary …

The Lightning should be thrilled with this 7-2-1 start. And there's nothing fluky about it. It deserves to be 7-2-1 and it's a solid 7-2-1. In these 10 games, the Lightning has played hard and played smart. This team feels more well-rounded and deeper than a season ago. More committed and focused than a season ago, too.

And yet you get the sense it still has another gear.

There's still a long way to go — 72 regular-season games to be exact.

But so far, so good for the Lightning.