Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning has that 2014-15 feel. And that’s good.

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ANAHEIM, Calif — The comparison came unprompted.

But as soon as Lightning wing Nikita Kucherov brought it up, you could definitely see it. Tampa Bay, having impressively dominated back-to-back games in San Jose and Los Angeles, is the best team in the league. And it’s having a blast.

Its style, its swag reminded Kucherov of the Lightning team that reached the 2015 Stanley Cup final.

"We have a lot of the same similarities," Kucherov said. "We play fast. We play with a lot of confidence, have a lot of fun. It’s fun to watch."

Like the 2014-15 team, the Lightning is led by a dazzling top line. Back then, it was the Triplets — Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson — tearing up the league. Now it’s Kucherov, who entered Friday as the NHL’s goals leader, with points leader Steven Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov, who has three goals in the past two games. There are new veteran voices, Dan Girardi and four-time Cup champion Chris Kunitz, who provide perspective like Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle did in 2014-15.

And most important, there’s a dogged determination sparked by a stinging defeat. The 2014-15 team was coming off getting swept in the first round of the previous season’s playoffs — done in seven days — by Montreal. This one was humbled by missing the playoffs last season.

"When you don’t make the playoffs the year before, there are a lot of questions that come up about the team and individuals," Alex Killorn said. "We wanted to come in and have a great season, and we’ve done a great job so far. But there’s a lot more work to do."

Killorn said the 2014-15 team got better as the season wore on, while this group is off to a 13-2-2 start. But there’s a similar vibe of everyone buying into their roles.

For every Stamkos and Kucherov, there’s an unsung star such as Brayden Point, who leads the team’s most complete line with Yanni Gourde and Palat. There are fresh faces such as rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is playing like a veteran.

"It’s just a great mesh," Killorn said. "Everyone is chipping in. Even though we’ve got those guys that are scoring a ton, you look at the point production from everyone. Everyone is up. It just seems like it’s a good chemistry and every game we have a ton of confidence that might not have been there in previous years."

There’s also a relentlessness, a constant intensity that might have been lacking last season. The Lightning isn’t just trying to outskill teams. It is showing will. Sharks veteran forward Logan Couture said that in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay, it felt like the Lightning, even on the penalty kill, had five more players on the ice.

"Their ability to make plays in small space and always on attack mode has been impressive," Kings coach John Stevens said. "I think it’s a little underestimated how physical they are on the puck and how well they check. There’s a reason they are where they are. I don’t see a lot of holes in their game."

The Lightning is far from perfect. It’s not immune to bad periods or shaky starts. But Ryan Callahan said this group has similar accountability and self-correction to the 2014-15 team, which didn’t lose more than two in a row all season.

And Tampa Bay is buoyed by a strong goaltending tandem, No. 1 Andrei Vasilevskiy, arguably the team MVP with a 12-1-1 record, and veteran backup Peter Budaj, who helped spark Thursday’s 5-2 win over the Kings with a game-changing save in the first period. Right after that save, the Lightning scored the fastest four goals in franchise history, in 2:02, to take a 4-0 lead.

"The boys were flying," Cooper said.

Yet, the Lightning remains grounded. There’s a lot of hype, but Victor Hedman said they all remember the bitter taste left after missing the playoffs by a point. Players still think back to the sting of the long summer. Being the best team in November is one thing. Being the top team in June is another.

"We can’t get ahead of ourselves," Hedman said. We’ve got to keep our feet on the ground and make sure we don’t let things get out of control. We know we’re going to get everyone’s ‘A’ game."

Cooper said there are differences between this team and the 2014-15 group but the core remains the same. There might be even more leadership.

"You know what," Cooper said. "There is a similar feel."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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