Is this the Lightning’s most complete team yet?

Shootout, overtime, blowouts, low-scoring games, high-scoring games, the Lightning has seen it all ... and won.
The crowd goal wild as ightning center Tyler Johnson (9) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Brayden Point (21) after he scored in the final seconds of Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory over Toronto on Thursday. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
The crowd goal wild as ightning center Tyler Johnson (9) celebrates with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and center Brayden Point (21) after he scored in the final seconds of Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory over Toronto on Thursday. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published December 15 2018

TAMPA—Shootout, overtime, blowouts, low-scoring games, high-scoring games, the Lightning has seen it all. This eight-game win streak doesn't have a formula.

There's no "the-Lightning-win-as-long-as-it (fill in the blank)." Tampa Bay doesn't need to score at least four goals or hold opponents to two or whatever it may be.

This Lightning team just wins games. Full stop.

That's not to say Tampa Bay won't lose another game — that's just not feasible — but it has proven itself capable of a variety of wins over the first 33 games.

The Lightning is just where it was last year at this time. After 33 games, Tampa Bay was atop the league with 50 points. Currently, its atop the league with 51 points. But this year's team is actually better.

The Lightning, however, doesn't use the word better.

Coach Jon Cooper called them different. Last year's was more a run-and-gun, whoever-gets-last-shot-wins team. The term most often used this season is complete.

"This is the most complete team I've been on," winger Ryan Callahan said. "Just our confidence, the way we play without the puck, the way we play with the puck."

Most complete means a team with many options, not reliant on one element. So we are back where we started: This Lightning team is dynamic.

Last week's win over Colorado showed it. Tampa Bay scored seven goals, taking advantage of some weak defensive moments and a lot of rebounds. On the other side, Tampa Bay largely shut down the Avalanche's offense, holding it to a single goal.

Either one of those things, scoring seven goals or holding an opponent to one, is likely to win a game.

"Some games we play a better team defense, sometimes our offense finds ways to outscore the other team," center Brayden Point said. "Sometimes our goalies, either (Andrei Vasilevskiy or Louis Domingue), are stepping up and winning games for us. I think it's great and it just shows our depth."

There's that word again, depth. Center Steven Stamkos even catches himself repeating it. "I know I keep referring back to it, but that's why we're able to (win)."

The Lightning has versatile depth. Take Stamkos and Anthony Cirelli.

Both are on hot streaks. Stamkos had five goals in two games, including a hat trick against the Rangers. Cirelli has five goals in the last four.

Stamkos showed off his pure-goal scorer instincts against the Rangers, with one-timers from near the faceoff circle, including two on the power play. Cirelli's last two goals (excluding the empty-netter against New York) were ones he had to battle for in one way or another. Against the Rangers, he chased down the puck and used his body to get between it and a Ranger. Against Toronto, he started the play by poking the puck away from a Maple Leaf in the neutral zone.

There's been talk around the NHL for years on the transition to a speed game, and the Lightning may have come closest to achieving that. That's why players and coaches talk so much about rolling four lines; they can actually do that with the depth they have.

"It's important," Callahan said. "You're not going to have success unless you have team that is good throughout the lineup. Everyone contributes in different ways. You have guys who are good on the power play, you have guys who are good on the (penalty kill). I think that's why we've had a lot of success, is we complete each other as a team."

As Stamkos put it, you can't build a team of all skill players. That's why fantasy sports are called fantasy.

For all this talk of scoring, the Lightning also has games like Thursday's win over Toronto, where the goalie steals one. Sure, Tampa Bay scored four times, but it was out-played and Vasilevskiy made the difference. So even on off nights the Lightning can win.

Tampa Bay still hasn't needed a lot of those games. It's needed timely saves, like Domingue coming up big on Marc Staal in the third period against the Rangers, but rarely for a goalie to win the game.

"The group has found a way to win different ways to win," Cooper said. "Aside from (Thursday), where we won and it was different in the sense that our goaltender had to win it for us, I don't find that we've always had to rely on our goaltender this year. Whether it's been a tight checking game, a wide-open game, a special teams game, the guys have found a way."

Tampa Bay has earned its reputation as a scoring team. It 134 goals are 16 more than the next team, but its also shown it can be more than that. This Lightning team has proven itself difficult.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at [email protected] Follow @dianacnearhos

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