TAMPA, Fla. — There are moments. There are memories.
In the coming months, there will be lessons gained in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s push to make a strong season special.
The All-Star break has arrived, and the Lightning enjoy a prime view. They sit atop the Eastern Conference with 64 points. They have asserted their dominance at home. They have depth throughout the roster. They want more.
Certain images stand out in their chase completed so far. Remember Marty St. Louis’ return to Tampa? Remember the roars at Amalie Arena after all those wins? Remember a young, dynamic line teasing everyone’s imagination? Remember the production by two worthy All-Stars?
Here are the five things that stood out in Tampa Bay’s pre-All-Star break schedule, with new memories bound to replace the old when the Lightning return to play next Tuesday against the Carolina Hurricanes …
1. Beating Marty St. Louis in Tampa
For some, it didn’t get much sweeter than slapping the former captain with a loss. Bruises remain among those fans who feel jilted by St. Louis’ unceremonious exit from Tampa Bay last March, and the former franchise staple made his first return to his old stomping grounds when the Lightning topped the New York Rangers 4-3 on Nov. 26 at Amalie Arena. St. Louis was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos, a predictable response given his confusing legacy here. Still, it was healthy for Tampa Bay and St. Louis that both sides received closure. Now, everyone has moved on. Different futures await the old captain and his former team, now separate of each other.
2. Routing the Montreal Canadiens by a combined score of 11-3 in two games
Memories of Montreal’s sweep of Tampa Bay in last season’s Eastern Conference quarterfinals remained fresh among many in the Lightning’s dressing room at the start of the current campaign. So far, Tampa Bay has spanked its former tormentor. The Lightning beat the Canadiens 7-1 on Oct. 13 at Amalie Arena and then 4-2 on Jan. 6 at the Bell Centre. The teams meet three times after the All-Star break — twice in Montreal and once in Tampa — so more chapters will be written in this budding rivalry. To this point, the Lightning have had the upper hand in a big way.
3. Earning a 19-4-1 record at home
It’s no secret that to succeed, defending home ice is critical. The Lightning have done so in a major way before the All-Star break, their 19 home victories tops in the NHL. It’s interesting to consider what clinching home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs could mean for Tampa Bay. For whatever reason, the Lightning play with more confidence at Amalie Arena. For whatever reason, they play with more life and with a feeling that, however possible, they will find a way to reach their desired result. Players have mentioned time and time again their comfort with playing at home. Clearly, the impact is real.
4. The emergence of the Tyler Johnson-Ondrej Palat-Nikita Kucherov line
What’s not to like about #ThatLine? Johnson, Palat and Kucherov have energized the Lightning more than any other group so far. Johnson, in particular, can be considered Tampa Bay’s MVP before the All-Star break. He leads his team with 48 points and 31 assists. Meanwhile, Kucherov and Johnson both have 17 goals, and Palat follows with 11 goals and 25 assists. Kucherov should be considered the Lightning’s largest surprise. After earning just nine goals and nine assists in 52 games last season, he has burst onto the scene in a big way to enhance Tampa Bay’s most electric line. Continued growth should be the mission for the upcoming months.
5. Johnson and Steven Stamkos are named All-Stars
Both deserve to make the trip to Columbus, Ohio. Stamkos is a known star, so his third All-Star Game appearance is less of a headline than Johnson’s first. Despite Johnson’s standout play, there were questions about whether he would be known enough to receive his first All-Star Game invite. Those concerns were placed to rest when rosters were announced on Jan. 10, and it’s a promising development that Johnson, in just his second full NHL campaign, can receive such recognition beyond the Tampa Bay region. Both Johnson and Stamkos, who has a team-high 26 goals, have higher ceilings to be discovered. Both will be central figures of the Lightning’s push after the All-Star break.