TAMPA — The boys were mostly all back, and their collaborative grace was a thing to behold.
Passes that moved swiftly, seamlessly and unexpectedly around Calgary players on the ice, as if they were tourists trying to keep up with a hustler’s shell game on a busy street sidewalk.
Shots that were coming from every direction, clanging continuously off the posts to remind the goaltender how close he’d come to giving up another score.
Yes, Nikita Kucherov was back for the Lightning on Thursday night, as well as Erik Cernak and Brayden Point. Tampa Bay was as close to full strength as it has been all season and the 4-1 victory was a welcome tease to what might lie ahead for the NHL.
But it was something else, too.
It was a reminder of what had been accomplished while Kucherov missed 32 games. While Cernak was out for 18 and Point for 14. While the top two goaltenders were simultaneously out of the lineup for the better part of a week, and younger players were still growing into their roles as replacements for all the manpower lost to the salary cap in the offseason.
In the coming months, we may look back and realize that clawing their way to first place in the Atlantic Division by the time Kucherov returned Jan. 6 was one of the most impressive things the Lightning have done in recent years.
Steven Stamkos is on pace for just his second 90-point season since 2011-12. At age 32, Alex Killorn is on pace for a career high in points. Anthony Cirelli has already matched last season’s goal total, and Corey Perry has exceeded the past three seasons.
“When you lose a player like Kuch in Game 3 and then to lose Pointer soon after that, it tests your depth,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I thought a lot of guys stepped up. Stammer really stepped up. Tony, Killer, there are so many guys. We got goaltending. But in the end, we had to defend. And in a lot of these games … we aren’t putting 5, 6, 7 up. We’re putting three up and defending our way to wins.
“I think that was a good growth period for our team. Were we perfect? No. But did we munch points here and there, and accumulate and keep ourselves in the standings in the playoff race? We did.”
The Lightning have done this before, of course. They played the entire regular season without Kucherov in 2020-21, and part of it without Stamkos, and still finished near the top of the division.
But that season had an autopilot sense to it. Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson were all still around from the previous year’s Stanley Cup title. Kucherov’s absence was more deftly absorbed into a lineup that had a lot of familiarity to it.
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Conversely, of the top 24 players in ice time this season, nine are relatively new to the dressing room. This was a team that had to come together and grow while still keeping pace with a strong Florida team right behind in the standings.
Last season, for the first time in years, the Lightning defense finished higher in NHL standings in goals against (sixth) than the offense did in goals-scored (eighth). It was a nod to the lessons learned in the previous season’s Stanley Cup chase that goal prevention had to come first.
They haven’t been as efficient defensively this season, but the mindset is still there. It was as much a part of Thursday’s victory against Calgary as Kucherov’s two brilliant assists.
“That’s how we’re going to win,” Cooper said of the defense.
Of all the things we learned during Tampa Bay’s string of playoff heartbreaks from 2015 to 2019, it was that regular-season success does not necessarily translate to postseason glory.
The style of play changes in the playoffs, and the best teams understand that. They prepare and they adapt for it. More than anything, that’s what these past three months have shown us about the current roster. They get it, and they’re willing to work for it.
The Lightning are no longer head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league in talent. The gap between them and the other contenders has inevitably been eaten up by defections.
But the idea Tampa Bay could still sit atop the division while adjusting on the fly bodes well for what’s still to come with a complete roster.
“Just because those guys have come back doesn’t mean like, ‘Oh, okay, now we’re good,’” Cooper said. “I think we’ve grown as a team (but) I think we’ve got better in us.
“It’s not ideal to see those guys go out. But if there was a silver lining, I think we grew as a team.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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