SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Lightning played at a crazy pace through the first part of the season, entering the All-Star break atop the league and winning at a nearly unheard of rate.
Tampa Bay’s lead decreased to five points over Calgary just before the break, but that’s because it just had its bye week and the Flames have played two more games. The Lightning’s points percentage is still .80 above anyone else.
At the NHL All-Star Game, some of the league’s best players marveled at the Lightning’s success.
It turns out, they mostly agree with the Tampa Bay’s self-assessment: depth is key.
“We rolled into Tampa and got crushed 7-1, and it just seemed like they were on a different level,” Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog said about the Dec. 8 matchup. “We had an off night that night, but at the same time, you look at their lineup and it’s one of the deeper lineups throughout the league, and I have a hard time seeing any team with a better lineup top to bottom.”
That is coming from the player who declared his line, with fellow all-stars Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon, the league’s best (and he was right, at the time).
Landeskog added, in terms of skill and quality of players, the Lightning essentially has two top lines, then two second or third lines, which makes it a very hard team to defend against.
Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau, whose team took the Lightning to a shootout before losing 5-4 on Dec. 20, pointed to the three Lightning players in the top 15 in points (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos). He knows how dangerous that is as the Flames are the only other team to have three.
“It’s tough to play against those guys, obviously,” Gaudreau said. “Their defense is really good, too. They have big defensemen that jump up into the play. You have to backcheck hard to take care of those guys. Then you can’t even get started on their goaltenders either.”
A few players said the Lightning’s experience as a largely stable, established group and a successful team helps fuel its success. Either one of those factors can be assets. Together, that’s an even stronger combination.
“If you look at their team, I think their players are still getting better,” said Jeff Skinner, whose Sabres beat the Lightning once this season. “It’s not like they have a lot of older players exiting their prime, they’re in the prime of their careers. They’re going to continue to get better, and it’s good for us because they’re a challenge.”
Skinner echoed what Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said at the halfway point about everyone being better as individual players and thus also being better collectively as a team.
To San Jose’s Joe Pavelski, the Lightning combines depth, high-end skill and determination. When the Sharks ended the Lightning’s 16-game point streak with a 5-2 win on Jan. 5, Pavelski said it took an overall strong team game. When the Lightning won 6-3 last Saturday, Tampa Bay capitalized on San Jose’s mistakes.
“Those guys seem to show up every night,” Pavelski said. “They have a lot of good players that have been around for a while and know how to compete and win games. I think that’s the biggest thing. And they’re just a good team right now.”