Dominant Lightning face test from Blackhawks (Nov 22, 2017)
TAMPA, Fla. -- One quarter of the way into the NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have the best record in hockey at 15-3-2, and Jon Cooper knows you can never stockpile enough points early on.
"You never want to slow down," Cooper said of his team's dominating start. "We were front and center last year, seeing how hard it is to catch up ... You've got to keep munching points, but all in all, I've got to tip my hat to the guys. It's been a great first quarter."
A year ago, Tampa Bay was 12-7-1 after 20 games, but after losing Steven Stamkos to a season-ending injury, they went 15-18-7 in their next 40, digging a hole they ultimately fell just short of climbing out of. A 13-5-2 stretch at the end wasn't enough, so this team will try to set the pace for the league as long as possible.
That carries a certain target from all their opponents, as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville acknowledged Tuesday. His team is off to a more modest 10-8-2 start, but is 3-1-0 in its last four, coming off a 2-1 victory at Pittsburgh and a 6-3 win against the New York Rangers.
"Our toughest test to date," Quenneville said of the Lightning, who took a home loss to the Islanders in their last game. "They're coming off a disappointing loss. An excellent team in a lot of ways. The threat to score on all their lines. It's going to be a real good test, knowing every shift is going to be a really good challenge."
One battle of strengths to watch is Tampa Bay's power play -- best in the NHL with 28 percent success rate -- going up against Chicago's penalty kill, which is killing off 85 percent of opponents' opportunities.
Tampa Bay has the league's top two scorers in Stamkos (35 points, with an NHL-best 25 assists) and Nikita Kucherov (33 points, with a league-high 17 goals), but they're also fourth in goals allowed. Andrei Vasilevskiy has an NHL-high 14 wins, and a solid 2.34 goals-against average.
Chicago can do a little better there, as Corey Crawford is only allowing 2.19 goals per game, fifth-best in the league, with the third-highest save percentage at .933. The offense isn't as prolific, with Artem Anisimov leading the way with 10 goals and Patrick Kane the top overall scorer with 19 points, including 13 assists.
The Lightning has vastly improved its penalty kill, rounding out a dominating special-teams advantage. It starts with Vasilevskiy, and newcomer Dan Girardi has set the tone as a physical, selfless defender.
"Your goalie needs to be on," Cooper said of the key to a strong penalty kill. "He's the guy that really makes the penalty kill go. But you have to kill a penalty 200 feet on the ice."
Chicago and Tampa Bay met in the 2015 Stanley Cup final, with the Blackhawks winning the series 4-2, but the Lightning are 3-0-1 since, including a two-game sweep last season.