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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning quietly climb atop Eastern Conference

NEWARK, N.J. — Shhhhhhh.

Steven Stamkos doesn't want to let out the secret that the Tampa Bay Lightning are off to one of the best starts in franchise history.

“Probably the quietest 8-3 record in the league and we like it that way,'' said Stamkos, named the league's No. 1 star of the week on Monday with a league-best seven points last week.

The eight victories in October mark a Lightning franchise record, one more than the previous mark of seven, done three times (2002-03, 2006-07 and 2010-11). The 16 points in the opening month ties a franchise record, which can be broken tonight against New Jersey at Prudential Center.

The start has gone unheralded around the league as more attention has been given to the starts by other upstart teams such as Colorado (10-1) and Toronto (8-4). But when newspapers are opened or Internet links clicked on, it shows Tampa Bay sitting atop the standings in the Eastern Conference.

The Lightning arrived at that point after navigating through a schedule that included two games each with Chicago and Boston as well as matchups with Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Minnesota. Along the way, Tampa Bay has found all sorts of ways to pick up victories — blowout wins, comeback victories, overtime outcomes as well as blowing leads only to come out on top.

“It's kind of sounding clichť now that we are finding a way,'' defenseman Matt Carle said. “It seems like every game we are saying that and we are getting points.''

In the past three games, all victories, the Lightning have surrendered third-period leads. Already twice this season, Tampa Bay has been down by two goals before rallying for a win. There have been two overtime victories, two shootout victories and a couple of lopsided wins along the way.

“Seems like we are kind of comfortable in different situations,'' Stamkos said. “You don't want to give up two late goals (on Sunday in Florida) but it's nice if it does happen and it's probably going to happen a couple more times throughout the year, but you don't panic in those situations.

“We don't want to put ourselves in those situations, we want to close out more games ... in regulation. But if it does happen, if there's a lucky bounce, if we take a penalty and they tie up, it's nice to know that we do have confidence in overtime and shootout situations.''

In the previous two seasons, the Lightning have been among the top scoring teams in the league, and that hasn't changed — Tampa Bay ranks third in the league, averaging 3.36 goals per game.

There has been a turnaround, however, in the goals against. While Tampa Bay is allowing 2.82 goals per game, which ranks tied for 18th in the league, the Lightning have allowed fewer than three goals six times. It's only 11 games into the season, but that's a significant drop from last year's 3.06 and the 3.39 allowed during the 2011-12 season.

“I'm not really surprised that we are 8-3 because there's so much potential . It comes down to us. If we play well defensively, we have a great chance and that's what we've been doing since the beginning of the year,'' defenseman Sami Salo said. “We have to keep it going because last year we obviously started 6-1 and didn't pay a lot of attention to the defensive side of the game and it cost us last year.''

After that quick start a season ago, the Lightning dropped the next six games and never recovered. It led to a coaching change and since Jon Cooper has taken over, the emphasis has been placed on playing better defensive hockey. And it's that reason Salo believes the Lightning are capable of sustaining the start this season.

“Absolutely,'' he said. “That's been the emphasis from the coaching staff and that's the look everybody is taking a lot of pride in, rather than taking the offensive zone chances. We aren't doing that anymore. It's been a conscious thing and it's been working.''

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