TORONTO – They are widely considered the team to beat with the NHL schedule just days away from flipping over to the second half.
And, yet, the high-flying Tampa Bay Lightning are currently focused on more modest objectives.
“The only thing our team’s trying to do is to make the playoffs and that’s it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said prior to Tuesday’s 2-0 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Missing out on last spring’s Stanley Cup tournament entirely has meant that nothing can be taken for granted, not even with a Harlem Globetrotters offence and a firm grip on top spot in the anemic Atlantic Division.
It was a long summer, remember.
“It was miserable for awhile,” said veteran centre Tyler Johnson.
Winter is here now and the Lightning are Cup favourites in Las Vegas, not to mention the minds of many rival executives. One remarked this week that they boast a lineup top to bottom that no one else in the Eastern Conference can counter.
Outside of Nashville, you might reasonably extend that statement to cover the entire league.
The Leafs aren’t slouches but they couldn’t muster any life through two periods of Tuesday’s game, falling behind 2-0 on goals by Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn while being out-attempted 39-24 at evens.
It was a clinic in puck control and organized 5-on-5 play from the visitors.
“We gave up a few scoring chances tonight, but I wasn’t ever sitting there saying ‘oh my god, we’re under siege,”’ said Cooper. “It never felt like that. I thought we defended well. We didn’t give them second chances.
“Any time you can keep an Auston Matthews and [Mitch] Marner and [William] Nylander and all those guys off the board, you’ve probably checked fairly well.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who might quietly have become the best goaltender in the world these last few months, was there for Toronto’s offensive forays. He wasn’t fooled by an early Matthews spin-o-rama and patiently held position on Marner’s breakaway attempt in the second period.
The Russian said he was “lucky” that a late Nylander chance hit the post and stayed out, but you know how that saying goes? His league-leading sixth shutout boosted his save percentage to .937.
No one knew for sure how well Vasilevskiy would handle the No. 1 role after teammate Ben Bishop was dealt away last season, but no one is questioning that now.
“It’s comforting, that’s what it is,” said Cooper. “It’s just been a pleasure to watch him grow in this league. He makes us a little bit bigger on the bench.”
Blessed with much better health than a season ago, the Lightning are arguably stronger than the 2015 and 2016 teams that went to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Final, respectively.
Brayden Point has emerged and bumped Johnson to the wing. Vladislav Namestnikov is having a breakout campaign alongside two of the NHL’s most lethal snipers: Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Rookie defenceman Mikhail Sergachev is contributing more, and much sooner, than expected.
Chris Kunitz is bringing depth and experience as a fourth-liner – he set up Paquette for Tuesday’s opening goal – while Dan Girardi has fit in well on the third defensive pairing.
Asked if he sees in any holes in the Lightning, an honest Nazem Kadri replied “not really.”
“They’ve got a pretty complete lineup,” said Kadri. “Their depth chart is looking very good, throughout their goalie, defencemen, forwards, even guys that come in and out of the lineup to play on a regular basis I think do a good job for them.”
The Lightning have set the bar pretty high with 60 points already on the strength of a 28-9-2 record. Entering Tuesday, they were at or near the top in plenty of key categories: First in goals per game (3.74), second in goals against per game (2.42), first in power-play proficiency (25.7 per cent), first in scoring chances for (54.78 per cent), second in team save percentage (.923) and eighth in even-strength shot attempts (52.29 per cent).
They hold a 10-point lead on Boston in the Atlantic and are now 12 up on the Leafs, but have three games remaining against both in the second half. Prior to puck drop in Toronto on Tuesday, Cooper remarked that “it’s just weird that we’re in the same division and it’s the first time we’re meeting all year.”
“But, let’s be honest, it’s probably two teams that have kind of been looking for each other all year,” he added. “No better way to start 2018 than playing the Leafs.”
The Leafs, like the rest of the league, have been looking up.
Given the state of the division, you might think the Lightning were on cruise control as they headed to Montreal for a Thursday meeting with the scuffling Habs. But even in the midst of this incredible start they’ve managed to focus more on process than results.
Asked if winning the Presidents’ Trophy would bring any satisfaction, Stamkos replied flatly: “No.”
“We know that winning games right now doesn’t really matter,” said Johnson. “The main group, I think the biggest thing for us is that we’re all more experienced. We’ve been together for awhile now, a lot of us, and every year you learn something new. We went through the Stanley Cup Final, conference final and then missed the playoffs last year. We’ve kind of been on every side of the spectrum.
“I think this year we’re more prepared for just about everything.”