TAMPA, Fla. — These early results reveal, if nothing else, that the Tampa Bay Lightning should be built for the long haul. They’re far from a finished product, and yet, they’re capable of welcoming opponents’ momentum into Amalie Arena and choking it before the visitors leave town.
Take Thursday’s result, a 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, as the latest encouraging example. The Flyers entered with 10 points and as winners of four of their previous five games. They scored at least four goals in three of those victories, including six in beating the Dallas Stars on Oct. 18 to begin their run.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, was without key players, players that will be expected to play significant roles as the Lightning strive to become all they envision this season, players who can’t be brushed aside as footnotes on the injury report. Victor Hedman continued to heal from a fractured finger on his right hand. Ryan Callahan neared a return from a lower-body injury. Brett Connolly remained out with a lower-body injury as well.
Still, the Lightning found a way, through enough grit and will and attitude to make this their latest messy masterpiece. There were the two goals from Steven Stamkos, his seventh and eighth this month. There were the scores from Vladislav Namestnikov and Jason Garrison. Ben Bishop made the saves he had to in order to preserve Tampa Bay’s edge.
The Lightning didn’t play their best hockey, of course. Stamkos said as much, and he’s right. Still, earning the two points was enough, especially when facing a hot team when down key men.
Sometimes, improvisation is necessary for survival.
"That’s what you need to do in this league," Stamkos said. "You’ve got to look at the long run. When it’s 82 games, you’re not going to play great hockey for 82 games. If you can find ways to win in those games where you don’t play your best but still pick up points, that’s what you need."
There’s always room to criticize. No team is flawless in late October, not the Montreal Canadiens, who lead the Eastern Conference with 17 points, and not the Anaheim Ducks, who lead the Western Conference with 16. With the Lightning, you’d like to see stronger defense late after gaining a two-goal lead 16:48 into the third period. Bishop has been average at times despite his 6-1-1 record, 2.39 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. Tampa Bay had to turn back Philadelphia’s late rush to prevent from being dragged into overtime.
Still, the bottom line is encouraging. A 7-3-1 record with 15 points indicates the Lightning are mature enough to handle the glare directed their way. It would have been simple for these players, after all the preseason hype created outside their dressing room, to stumble from the start. They could have let the noise bother them. All the chatter could have served as a distraction, but that hasn’t happened so far.
The development is telling of the group’s DNA. It should be no surprise, given the team’s comfort with coach Jon Cooper, leadership from Stamkos and veteran additions like Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle.
A larger shock would have been seeing Tampa Bay struggle in these opening 11 games. Sure, perfection remains an elusive standard. Yes, the injuries, especially the loss of Hedman, have kept this team from becoming all it can be in this early stretch. More will be learned.
Yet sometimes scrambling for a victory, like the one earned Thursday, is more satisfying that cruising for the same result. Sometimes, scratching is more fulfilling than gliding through a four-goal blowout.
"Sometimes, it’s not about how you play," Stralman said. "It’s about getting the points. I thought, for the most part, we played a pretty good game. But we still can do better. To get the points, that’s always big."
That should be the mission now, that should be the mission Saturday against the Washington Capitals and that should be the mission always. Get the points. Forget the rest. After all, this is no beauty pageant, the ice no catwalk.
There’s no column for style in the NHL standings. So if at least one point is earned on any given night, why complain about how it was achieved?
"They’ve got a good team over there," Cooper said, referencing the Flyers. "Once again, we had a really strong start, put them on their heels, scored early. I talk about it all the time about getting a lead."
Cooper’s group accomplished that again Thursday, and the Lightning did enough to collect two more points. That’s what good teams do. That’s all that matters, even if they weren’t perfect.
If they’re able to stack points even when not playing flawless hockey, then they should remain strong the rest of the season.
Bottom line: Winners find ways to remain so, plain and simple, no matter how the desired result is gained. So far, so good, for these Lightning.