A lot of people thought last season's Tampa Bay Lightning resembled the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks. By that I mean, a young team with a few rising superstars -- Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman particularly -- ready to be a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Of course, the Bolts lost last year's Finals in six games to those Hawks, but everyone assumed the Lightning would be back.
Now it's starting to look like that's could be the case. After a slow start to the season, the Bolts have shot to the top of the Atlantic Division and brought a franchise-record nine-game winning streak into Monday's matchup at Philadelphia. Since Jan. 1, the Lightning are 21-6-0. What makes this current winning streak even more impressive is that the Lightning are just 3-for-31 on the power play during it (they are 25-for-28 on the penalty kill). But they've managed to score 3.67 goals per game in their past nine; they were scoring 2.6 goals per game through their first 56 games. Tampa Bay now ranks ninth in the NHL for goals per game at 2.77 for the season. Last year they led the league at 3.16 per game. The Bolts are 29-2-3 overall this season when scoring three or more goals.
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"The Triplets" line of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov has really taken off. Stamkos has seven goals in the win streak. He started producing after general manager Steve Yzerman publicly stated that Stamkos, a free agent-to-be this summer, would not be traded. Goalies Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have combined for a 1.75 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in the streak. Vasilevskiy was to start Monday's game in Philadelphia, meaning Bishop should be back in there Tuesday in Boston.
Tampa is now the second-favorite for the Eastern Conference title at +500, with the Washington Capitals still +175 favorites. They are the first team to 100 points; no one else even has 90 yet.
This Week's Games To Watch
NY Rangers at Buffalo, Tuesday: The Blueshirts remain without goalie Henrik Lundqvist and winger Rick Nash. Lundqvist is making progress after sustaining neck spasms last Thursday vs. Pittsburgh. He was hurt on a collision with teammate Ryan McDonagh. After that happened, a visibly upset Lundqvist threw his own net off its moorings into the end boards to get a stoppage in play as Pittsburgh re-entered the zone seconds later. He was whistled for a delay of game two-minute minor; Lundqvist was angry the referee didn't give him an injury timeout. Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins called it ''baby stuff.'' Nash hasn't played since Jan. 22 with a leg injury but is improving and could be back this weekend.
Washington at Los Angeles: Wednesday: A potential Stanley Cup Finals preview. The Caps are +375 to win it and the Kings are +1100. Washington owns the league's best power play at 23.2 percent as well as its top road record at 22-7-2. There's an outside chance that Alex Ovechkin could be suspended for this game. Ovechkin took a major penalty for a boarding penalty on Kevan Miller of the Bruins on Saturday, a hit that sent Millar to the hospital. Ovechkin said the hit was a "hockey play" and he doesn't expect there to be additional discipline from the league. He has three suspensions in his career for bad hits. The Kings have now fallen behind the red-hot Ducks in the Pacific Division. The Ducks trailed the Kings by as many as 16 points on Jan. 20. Since then, Anaheim has gone 18-1-1 and Los Angeles 9-9-1
New Jersey at San Jose, Thursday: I'd bet against the Devils for the next two weeks at least as they will be without All-Star goaltender Cory Schneider at least that long with an MCL sprain. He injured it Friday against Dallas. Schneider almost single-handedly kept the team in the playoff hunt with a 2.17 goals-against average and .923 save percentage. Keith Kinkaid takes over as the No. 1 guy. Remember, too, that the Devils traded one of their few good offensive players, Lee Stempniak, to Boston at the trade deadline. The Devils are six points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card in the Eastern Conference. New Jersey's not getting that spot.
Anaheim at St. Louis, Friday: As usual, everyone is overlooking the Blues, but they are now within two points of the Central Division lead held by Chicago and Dallas. The Blues have won seven of their past 10 games to make up ground on the Stars (3-5-2 in their past 10) and the Blackhawks (5-4-1 in their past 10). St. Louis has to prove it can finally make noise in the postseason, however. Another one-and-done likely costs Coach Ken Hitchcock his job. The Ducks entered this week on an NHL-best 11-game winning streak. Believe it or not, Bruce Boudreau on Saturday became the fastest coach in league history with 400 wins. He did so in 663 games. Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman had held the mark at 690 games. Ducks goalie Frederik Andersen, is 10-0-1 with a .933 save percentage since the All-Star break.
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