On Dec. 23, the Tampa Bay Lightning received a huge blow to their hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champs when GM Julien BriseBois announced that Nikita Kucherov’s hip surgery would keep the first-line winger out for at least the entirety of the 2021 regular season. Kucherov had been the Lightning’s number-one offensive presence throughout their Cup run last year, leading the team in goals with 33 during the main part of the season and then finishing first on the team with 34 points in 25 games during their big playoff bubble run. On top of that, Kucherov’s last normal, full season in ’18–’19 was one of the best ever in the history of the NHL, as his 41 goals and 87 assists earned him near-unanimous MVP honors and helped his team score 30 more goals than anyone else in the league. Without Kucherov, the Lightning suddenly became a significantly less scary team.
But on Wednesday, Tampa unveiled their championship banner and then dominated the Chicago Blackhawks like it was still September. Opening with five unanswered goals before allowing one in garbage time, they overwhelmed poor Malcolm Subban with the kind of attacking onslaught that has become their trademark, spraying shots from all angles until the Hawks goalie just couldn’t help but let pucks in.
I will not draw any conclusions from this one game against a basement-bound franchise, but there are two very encouraging signs from the Lightning in these first 60 minutes. Number one is the effectiveness of the power play without Kucherov. The Lightning’s PP has been in the NHL’s top 5 in each of the past three seasons and has been one of the crucial reasons why they consistently lead everybody in scoring. Though all of the Lightning’s forward talents deserve credit for that success, nobody unlocks these scoring chances better than Nikita. In that MVP season, Kucherov’s 48 power play points were a franchise record, and teammates Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos finished one and two on the NHL’s power play goals leaderboard in large part because of his 33 assists.
On Wednesday, the Bolts went 3-for-4 on their extra-man opportunities without Kucherov in the lineup, covering for the loss with the sticks of slightly less famous but still very menacing guys like Point and Ondrej Palat. On their first goal of the season, 10 minutes into the game and with the special teams unit out there, the presence of Stamkos and Point on opposite wings opened up a lane through which stud defenseman Victor Hedman could fire a blast to the net. And though that shot was initially stopped, Palat was parked at the front door to knock in the rebound.
This brings me to Encouraging Sign No. 2: Stamkos’s immediate impact in his return as a fully healthy forward. The Lightning’s captain hadn’t played a full NHL game since all the way back in February of 2020, but when healthy, he’s turned in some of the most prolific scoring seasons of his generation, including a 45-goal/53-assist campaign in ’18–’19. The Lightning badly need that level of production to continue if they want to keep winning games at the pace they’re used to, and on Wednesday, he didn’t miss a beat, earning First Star plaudits by scoring one power play goal and assisting on the two others. His goal, coming in the second period with the score already 3-0, was just vintage Stamkos. He made a little home for himself in the left circle, waited for the puck to come visit, and then treated it to a big one-timer that found the back of the net. Again, even without Kucherov, the talents of Point and Stammer on opposite ends of the attacking zone stretched the defense beyond its functionality.
The other goal was created by Stamkos’s skates. He received the puck near the left-side boards and just traveled in a big loop through some defenders and into the danger zone. That took enough attention away from Point in the slot that Stamkos could find some space to feed him for a pretty simple late-game pile-on. Already, this somewhat unfamiliar-looking Lightning machine is working so smoothly that it’s almost a little mundane.
“Goal scorers are used to scoring goals,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said about Stamkos after the game. “I was really happy that he was able to score tonight, because you put him back and in a power-play spot he hasn’t been in for a while and it’s a confidence thing, and so the sooner he can get it, the better.”
The captain, for his part, said that yesterday was “the best I’ve felt in a long time,” and implied that the Lightning’s makeshift power-play unit could get even better as they continue to get reps together.
“We know it’s probably going to continue to be a work in progress, for sure,” he said. “You can’t replace a guy like Kuch. He’s so dynamic when he has the puck. He slows the puck and the play down so much in order to get guys open. We’ve worked on different combinations so far and in camp and in the scrimmages, and tonight we executed it.”
There’s still a long, long way to go, but Tampa’s title defense could not have started any better.