Caution, optimism, and contention: Is Tampa Bay for real?

Scott Iskowitz

The Lightning are one of the surprise teams of the early going in the NHL this season... Are they for real? A very cautious optimism (with a fair shake of wariness) keeps me wondering if it can and will last.

Roughly, a fifth of the NHL season is gone now from the Tampa Bay Lightning schedule (16 x 5 = 80).  After 16 games of the NHL season, the Bolts are flying high with a 12-4-0 record.  They've knocked off the defending NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks - twice.  They've beaten teams they're expected to beat (Florida, Buffalo, Edmonton,) and fared well against the more competitive squads of the league (Carolina, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Detroit) while losing four games to three teams (Boston, Pittsburgh and New Jersey.)  Two of those losses were lackluster efforts, while two others were great competitions but crappy results.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the perceived anomaly of the moment - the Lightning in first place in the Atlantic Division.  It would seem that "brief moment" has been extended and fortified.

Flying high, 24 points... And still I am wary.

It's not so much doubt that makes me cautious while enjoying Tampa Bay's run; I've watched Jon Cooper teams do exactly what the Lightning are doing now - though those games were played in the AHL, not NHL.  I have skepticism in my heart, though, and for a reason.

Do you remember where the Lightning had been after a fifth into the 2013 lockout-shortened season?

After 9 games, Tampa was 6-3-0.  They were participating in what would be a four-game losing streak (five game winless streak)...  But really, it's the .666 win percentage at the time (and the feeling like things would be fine... really) that I recall.

Right now, after 16 games, the Bolts have a .750 win percentage.

Things are different between the Lightning of nine months ago, this isn't Guy Boucher's system at work (and that's not knocking the 1-3-1 as much as the lack of defensive responsibility... and a lack of goaltending consistency). The Bolts are 6-2-0 in one-goal games, that's more wins than all of last season.  They're 3-1 in games decided by two-goals or more, matching their win total in the category from all of last season; and 3-1 in games decided by three or more goals.

In other words, they're fighting to the end and winning those close contests.... Something last season's team just couldn't do.

After taking down the Red Wings last night, my cautious optimism continues to be wowed, and I'm left to wonder - is Tampa Bay for real this time?

It's a testament of the Lightning roster the last few years that they've kept you believing that they're thisclose to doing something when they're down in the standings.  Of course, the Lightning being in the Southeast Division in the past always left the door open for them with thanks to a low standard and four other teams that seemed to fight each other for draft lottery position more often than for playoff spots.

Do you recall 2009-10?  When Tampa Bay was on the verge of something only to fall down and go boom after the Olympic break (with partial thanks to the Rick Tocchet - Wes Waltz / Brian Lawton - Jim Johnson debacle)?  How about 2011-12 when the aforementioned Southeast couldn't produce a true division champion?  In those years (and the good year of 2010-11,) guys like Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos (who, as of Sunday afternoon, is tied for the league lead in points and goals-scored), Vincent Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell, Ryan Malone, Victor Hedman and Nate Thompson were playing their asses off in different ways.  It was that core that made it so easy to believe the Lightning's fortunes should be better in most seasons where they weren't.

The core is shifting, as prospects and other players acquired by GM Steve Yzerman have been brought in or finished their gestation in the AHL (becoming NHL bona-fides).  This has all helped turn Tampa Bay into early season contenders.

Should I continue to be so cautious?  Knowing the month ahead is a difficult one on the road, it gives obvious reason not to go overboard.  Knowing how many games are left (a lofty 66) gives you even more reason to chill out; a lot can happen in the course of a season and there is still a majority of a season to go.

Is the Lightning for real?  It's hard to suggest they're not at this point...  But with flaws that skeptics and supporters will both point out: a lack of secondary scoring, a lack of offensive input by the defense, the perception this is a one-goalie team that only has an inexperienced and shaky backup.

This is also a team being inconsistent under Jon Cooper's system; sometimes they adhere to it and sometimes they play to their opponent's level.  This was evident in the win against Edmonton ("river hockey") and in previous games against other opponents.  Ultimately, those games were wins but they were put at risk because the team decided to match playing styles of the other team.

There's room for improvement, and likely some forthcoming roster turmoil with thanks to both injuries and players returning from injuries (forward Tom Pyatt is expected back around thanksgiving, defenseman Brian Lee is overdue to return).  While we're at it, it's never clear who is going to get hurt at any given time. It's possible to derail the entire hot start with one untimely injury to any member of the team.

There's probably a ton of analytical data out there that stresses how likely the Bolts can sustain this lead (or how inflated their results are at current and how unsustainable it is)... That's not my forte though.  My area, as a fan, is just the broader wonder and getting lost in the drama of the moment.

Right now, that drama is the best kind - knowing your club is flying high.  The lingering doubt, however, is a necessary evil while attempting to stay grounded during times of good fortune.

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