EDMONTON, Alberta — The curtain on the second half of the Tampa Bay Lightning schedule rises tonight in Edmonton, and if the second act proves anything like the first, Tampa Bay is on track for a strong finish.
In the first full season under coach Jon Cooper, the Lightning closed out the first 41 games of the regular season with Friday’s 2-0 victory in Calgary to improve their record to 25-12-4 for 54 points, the best record in franchise history at the midway point of the season, one point better than 2010-11 (24-12-5).
Despite the absence of star center Steven Stamkos for 24 games in the first half — Stamkos suffered a broken leg on Nov. 11 — the Lightning have found ways to win.
Led by goaltender Ben Bishop, who is a Vezina Trophy candidate with a 22-5-3 record and 1.83 goals-against average, Tampa Bay is third in the Eastern Conference standings and eighth overall.
So how did a team that finished 28th in the league last season, with eight rookies in the lineup on a regular basis, turn things around so suddenly?
“I’ve watched this team grow from an offensive-minded sort of juggernaut, as the organization has been for a while, to a team that says you better get more than two goals on us to beat us,’’ Cooper said. “It’s a formula you can win with, and then naturally, looking at a bunch of kids and a few wily vets that had every reason in the world to say ‘Steven Stamkos is down and nobody is really going to feel bad if we lose some games or pass the excuse on that we’ve had some injuries and we are not going to push through this season,’ and they have taken ownership of themselves and put themselves in the conversation to be relevant at the end of March and into the start of April.’’
Now, as the second part of the season gets ready to kick off, the key is to stay in that conversation and not let a strong first half turn into a second-half slump.
“If you would have told us where we are at, with all the injuries we’ve had, I think we would have paid for that, and we are working hard and getting rewarded for putting in that work,’’ captain Marty St. Louis said. “We just have to go out there and earn it every night. We are going to face teams that don’t look good in the standings, and if you don’t want to go out there and earn the win, you are going to get caught on the wrong side of things because there are no easy games in this league.’’
Top 5 moments of the first half
Oct. 10 - After going without a goal in a three-game road trip to start the season, Stamkos delights the home fans by registering a hat trick — one shorthanded goal, one at even strength and one on the power play — in a 7-3 rout of the Florida Panthers.
Oct. 24 - Facing defending champion Chicago for the second time in three weeks, a Stamkos goal with 2:29 left in the game erases a third-period deficit to give Tampa Bay a 5-4 lead, but a harmless-looking back pass by Matt Carle deflects off the skate of Radko Gudas and past Bishop 40 seconds later. With a St. Louis goal 1:16 into overtime, Tampa Bay still picks up the victory.
Nov. 9 - Teddy Purcell’s overtime goal gives Tampa Bay a 3-2 victory in Detroit, the second Lightning victory at Joe Louis Arena and the first since Jan. 12, 1994.
Nov. 11 - Lightning fans, Canadian Olympic fans and everybody else hold their breath watching Stamkos fly into the post, struggle to get to his feet and eventually get taken off on a stretcher after breaking his right tibia in the second period of a 3-0 loss at Boston.
Nov. 25 - Tampa Bay returns home from a 0-3-1 road trip to celebrate St. Louis for appearing in his 1,000th career game during a pre-game ceremony. In true St. Louis fashion, the captain goes out and scores a pair of goals in a 5-0 victory against the New York Rangers.
5 bold predictions for the second half
1. Stamkos stuns the hockey world to return ahead of schedule and is back in the lineup by the end of January, registering a hat trick in his first game back
2. Bishop continues to shine while playing in front of general managers who are part of USA Hockey, shutting out Nashville, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Florida at various times.
3. Rookie Nikita Kucherov remains with the team after Stamkos returns and goes on to reach the 20-goal mark.
4. Center Tyler Johnson gets the recognition he deserves as he reaches the 20-goal mark and is the rookie leader in plus/minus while being named a Calder Trophy finalist.
5. St. Louis, fresh off a run with the Canadian Olympic team, pairs back up with Stamkos in the Lightning lineup and finishes in the top 10 in scoring.