NHL-best Lightning hope to weather Hurricanes
TAMPA — The oasis in the middle of a rough January for the Tampa Bay Lightning is a three-game homestand, surrounded by nine road games.
And as Tampa Bay returns to Amalie Arena for Tuesday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, they still carry the NHL’s best record at 30-9-3, including a 3-1-1 mark on their just-completed five-game road trip.
“We believe in each other in this room,” said center Steven Stamkos of a recent two-game stretch that saw the Lightning lose to Montreal in a shootout and in regulation at Ottawa. “I don’t think anyone feels entitled. We just didn’t play the right way.”
That consecutive games without a win is cause for alarm speaks to how well the Lightning have sustained their success this season. Tampa Bay leads the NHL in goals per game, ranks second in goals allowed and also has the league’s No. 3 power play, converting 24.7 percent of its opportunities.
That’s a daunting challenge for the Hurricanes, who come to Tampa with a 19-14-8 record, one point outside the current Eastern Conference playoff picture. Carolina ran off a 7-1-0 stretch, but has gone 1-2-1 since, bouncing from a 4-0 win at Pittsburgh to a 7-1 loss at Boston as they continue a four-game road swing.
“They’re good defensively,” coach Bill Peters said of Tampa Bay. “People don’t talk about that, that they’re good defensively … And obviously they have a real good power play.”
Carolina doesn’t rank higher than 20th in any of the major statistical categories — left wings Teuvo Teravainen (11 goals, 22 assists) and Sebastian Aho (13 goals, 20 assists) are tied for the team lead with 33 points.
They would rank fifth on the Lightning, which has the NHL’s top point-getter in Nikita Kucherov (59), also tied for the league lead with 27 goals. Stamkos has 17 goals and 34 assists to tie for fourth in the league with 51 points.
As Peters mentioned, the high scoring has obscured perhaps the most impressive part of Tampa Bay’s first-place start. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL with 26 wins and ranks second in goals-against average, allowing only 2.04 per game.
The Lightning lost backup goalie Peter Budaj to injury, but got a win at Detroit from his replacement, Louis Domingue, who went 0-6 with Arizona before he was traded.
Tampa Bay got good news Monday when they learned that veteran defenseman Dan Girardi is only day-to-day after taking a high shot to the back of his head and neck as he tried to block a shot in Sunday’s win at Detroit.
Cooper called the play “one of the scariest things I’ve seen” in hockey, grateful to not have a more significant injury to a key addition to his lineup this season.
As much as Carolina is overmatched, Peters needs only point to the team’s first meeting in Raleigh in October. While it ended up a 5-1 win for Tampa Bay, it was 2-1 with three minutes to play, very much up for grabs before the Lightning pulled away.
Tampa Bay hopes to get the most of their three-game stop at home — they’re back on the road the rest of the month, save a few of their best players getting to play on home ice for the NHL All-Star Game, which is played in Tampa this month.