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The Surprising Start of the Tampa Bay Lightning

Posted on November 20, 2013 by Scott Huntington

When the Tampa Bay Lightning left the tepid waters of the old Southeast Division for the harsh seas of the new Atlantic, many pegged them to fail. The Southeast was frequently the weakest division in the NHL, and Tampa Bay hadn’t even finished first since their Stanley Cup winning season in 2004.

Stanley Cup Finals: Lightning v Flames

Naturally, the outlook was grim as they headed north to play with perennial powerhouses Boston, Montreal and Detroit, who had freshly arrived from the West. Add on the upstart Ottawa Senators and surging Toronto Maple Leafs and you’ve got a recipe for many more years of struggling.

To many, the window on Tampa’s postseason hopes was already closing. Struggling to find a suitable franchise goaltender had stifled much of the offensive power that the Bolts brought to the table, and the defense had been porous. GM Steve Yzerman replaced head coach Guy Boucher with Jon Cooper, a somewhat unexpected choice as he used to be a corporate lawyer. Yzerman also bought out captain Vincent Lecavlier’s contract and let him walk to Philadelphia, where he signed with the Flyers. It was looking like this would be the start of another rebuilding season, and maybe even more big names would be traded out of Tampa.

Then, however, things just started to click. The Lightning selected long time fan favorite and likely Hall of Fame candidate Martin St. Louis to be the next captain, which made a lot of sense, as he was already a big voice in the locker room. They also picked up goaltender Ben Bishop, who has been absolutely stellar this season. Paired with Anders Lindback, they are the two tallest goaltenders in the NHL, and make a very good combo in Tampa Bay.  Steven Stamkos came out of the gate firing too, and put up league leading numbers in goals before an injury took him off the ice. The loss of Stamkos is a major concern, as he will be missing anywhere from 3-6 months of playing time. The Stamkos/St. Louis combo has made the Bolts top line one of the most productive in the NHL, and Stamkos’ shot from the low circle on the powerplay has been his signature for the last few years, making Tampa’s extra-man unit a devastating force.

StLouis

One of the unknowns was Coach Jon Cooper, who replaced a successful Guy Boucher. Cooper was an outstanding coach in the AHL, winning the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012, which also landed him the 2012 Louis A.R. Pieri Award for Most Outstanding Coach. At the time of his promotion to the big club, Cooper had been leading the Syracuse Crunch to a league leading 39 wins in 65 games. Cooper is an interesting character, known for his very dry wit and blunt press conferences. Cooper has righted the ship, removing Boucher’s hated 1-3-1 system, and tightening morale in the locker room.

It has been a major surprise to see this team taking it to their opponents every night, as the Bolts power through their schedule. Having led the Atlantic for most of the season, they sit one point behind a surging Boston Bruins team that has every reason to be in first place. Losing Stamkos is huge, but this team seems to have established a winning culture that can overcome the loss of a star player. Obviously, time will tell how big of a role Stamkos played, but the Lightning will have to press on, and continue to shock the critics as they move towards another playoff berth.


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