Early returns good for the Tampa Bay Lightning

TAMPA, Fla. — The season’s young, but this sneak peek hints towards a winter worth watching. 

You’re forgiven if the horror flick at Raymond James Stadium has distracted you from a fine show at Tampa Bay Times Forum over the past two-plus weeks. Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning wrapped up a season-long, seven-game homestand with a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, bumping their mark to 5-2 within the stretch. Sunday, the Bolts took their act on the road, beating the Florida Panthers 4-3 in a shootout to improve to 8-3 overall with 16 points, tying them with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the Eastern Conference lead.

In a town where the football has been frightening, hockey has been kinder to the eyes. Here, the ice is cold, but the play sizzles.

So far, Lightning coach Jon Cooper likes what he sees.

“I’d say we’re a resilient team,” he said Saturday, after wingers Marty St. Louis and Ondrej Palat scored consecutive goals in the third period to erase a one-goal deficit. “We work hard. We stay in most every game. For right now, they’re finding ways to win the close ones, regardless of who they’re playing. They’re not getting rattled. It’s not happening with this team. When you have that quiet calm, that confidence in coming back, you like that in your team.”

Here’s the spot for the necessary disclaimer: No one ever sipped from the Stanley Cup after 11 games. There’s still much to be learned about these Bolts in Cooper’s second season. Anything can happen. Rinse and repeat the caution.

Still, it’s fine to let your imagination dance a little. This homestand was no walk along Bayshore Boulevard, which makes Tampa Bay’s performance more impressive. The Lightning played the past four Stanley Cup champions — the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings — and won two of the matchups (over the Kings on Oct. 15 and the Blackhawks in overtime last Thursday).

Not a bad way to kick up the skates at home, get comfortable and build momentum before November. The big question now is, can this level be maintained?

“I think we’re resilient,” St. Louis said. “I’m anxious to see. We play different situations. We don’t (get) down, whatever. It’s finding ways. When we’re able to find ways like this early on against a pretty good team (Buffalo), it’s a good sign.”

Another good sign: This start feels more telling of the Lightning’s ability. In retrospect, the 6-1 burst to begin the 2012-13 campaign was a bit of a mirage, with a high-flying offense compensating for a defense that was at times both loose and reckless. We’ve only received a glimpse of this group, but the show so far feels more balanced, more lasting. 

The Bolts displayed a little of everything during the homestand: An ability to rout an opponent (a 7-2 victory over the Panthers on Oct. 10), a knack for winning close (a 6-5 victory over the Blackhawks) and a touch of comeback (the victory over the Sabres).

Now, their challenge is growing and continuing to evolve. Character is revealed after a few hurdles. Cooper said his team found lessons in the losses, as well as the high moments enjoyed.  

On the Pittsburgh defeat, a 5-4 loss on Oct. 12: “That was a game where we probably let emotions get the best of us.”

On the Boston defeat, a 5-0 loss on Oct. 19: “We learned a little bit in the Boston game of how hard we have to play. We’re not good enough to take a night off and think we’re going to beat somebody.”

“We play great defensively,” Palat said. “Offensively, we need to shoot more. … We have to start focusing on shooting the puck. Good things are going to happen when you shoot the puck.”

Goals are no issue. After Sunday, the Lightning rank third in the league with an average of 3.36 goals per game. This was the tempting question last season: What if the Bolts combine an ability to score with more discipline on defense?

“We found a way to come back. We found a way to hold leads,” Cooper said of lessons learned during the homestand. “Hopefully, they continue to buy into what we’re selling and keep the work ethic going. It should be fun.”

The season’s young, but the early act has received positive reviews.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.