The Tampa Bay Lightning are surprising many right now, with 16 points in their first 12 games. That currently places them second in the newly realigned Atlantic Division, behind only the Toronto Maple Leafs.
As expected, Steven Stamkos has been a key component to the Lightning’s strong start. The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is off to another fabulous start offensively, notching nine goals and 18 points during the team’s first dozen games. That resulted in him earning NHL first star of the week honors for the week ending Oct. 27.
However, it’s Stamkos’ overall awareness at both ends of the ice that gives the Lightning a chance to win nearly every night. His plus-6 rating ranks second on the team, one back of Martin St. Louis‘ plus-7.
Often criticized for trying too hard, Stamkos is now showing his team can depend on him in tight situations. Take this past Sunday’s game against the struggling, yet still dangerous Florida Panthers for example. Down one man after losing Radko Gudas to a game misconduct penalty about midway through the second period, Stamkos played extremely smart hockey in limiting the Panthers good chances. That allowed him to be the hero, pulling off an impressive deke which easily beat Jacob Markstrom in the shootouts fourth round, lifting the Lightning to victory.
Last year was a completely different story for Stamkos. He, along with the majority of his teammates, often times tried too hard, resulting in opponent goals. That approach likely contributed to him finishing with a minus-4 rating, the worst since his rookie year.
Now, the only question is whether Stamkos can keep playing solid defensively while also pushing the pace offensively. If he can, there’s little doubt the Lightning will still be contending for a playoff spot come April 2014.