Heading into the 2013-2014 season, nobody knew what to expect from the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A team chock full of offensive talent, the Lightning always could hang around with the big boys. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough, as their goaltending and defense struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard for extended periods of time. Last year’s disastrous end to a season which flashed promise, most notably during an early 6-1 stretch, exposed that glaring weakness while also proving not every win is enough to make people sit up and take notice.
So what makes this Lightning team different?
For starters, they have better goaltending, largely thanks to Ben Bishop. Acquired from the Ottawa Senators back in early April 2013, he’s provided stability at hockey’s most important position. Need proof? Look no further than his NHL-leading 11 wins, two coming against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, 2.12 GAA and .927 save percentage.
It’s not just Bishop coming up big though. Defensively, the Lightning currently have 14 players with plus ratings, including offensive stars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis who each boast a plus-11. Rookies Andrej Sustr (plus-1), Mark Barberio (plus-2) and hard-hitter Radko Gudas (plus-6) provide steadiness along the back end as well, something this team’s needed for years.
Offensively, Stamkos and St. Louis can still burn opposing teams, but they aren’t the only ones. Offseason acquisition Valtteri Filppula ranks third in team scoring with 12 points in 16 games.
Perhaps most important, however, is the way this team embraces challenges. Don’t tell them they can’t do something because chances are they’ll prove you wrong, evidenced in two wins over the defending Cup champions. Great wins, but coming so early people remained somewhat skeptical. And rightly so considering they lacked significant divisional victories.
Until Saturday night that is. Facing the league’s model franchise in the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning accomplished something that had eluded them since 1994. Getting a win at Joe Louis Arena. More than that, they earned an extra two points in the standings, placing them atop both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.
Do the Lightning have what it takes to continue defying all odds going forward? While unknown, Tampa Bay’s quietly proving they’re a team worth taking seriously.