The Tampa Bay Lightning concluded a solid first quarter of the 2009-10 NHL season with a winning record and some confidence.
There have been playmakers, some solid goal tending, and something the team lacked last season: defense.
If the playoffs were to begin today, your Tampa Bay Lightning would be among the elite eight in the Eastern Conference. In fact, three Southeast Division teams would be there, including Washington as the No. 1 seed.
The Southeast is tied with the Northeast for most division participants in the top eight of the Eastern conference, making it one of the toughest divisions this side of the Mississippi.
So what about this Jekyl and Hyde Bolts team? There are times when they're on the ice that harkens back to the days when Lord Stanley had to wear sunscreen.
Then there are games where they look like Barry Melrose has risen from the NHL coaching grave to haunt this team.
Let's look back at the first quarter of the season and highlight some impressive moments.
Record: 10-6-8, 28 Points
First Quarter Record (21 Games): 9-5-7, 25 points
Current Pace: 36-20-26, 98 points
First Quarter Most Valuable Player: Steven Stamkos, forward
Stamkos has emerged as an elite player in the National Hockey League and put together a phenomenal first quarter of the season.
With 17 goals and 12 assists in 24 games, "Stammer" is on pace for a team-record 58 goals this season and has shown no signs of slowing down.
First Quarter Most Disappointing Player: Mike Smith, goalie
While still recovering from a severe concussion, Smith has shown flashes of why the Bolts surrendered perennial All-Star forward Brad Richards for his services.
Unfortunately, Smith has yet to find consistency in his play. Struggling at 4-4 with a 3.22 GAA, Smith has been outplayed by his backup, Antero Niittymaki, and could be close to losing his starting position.
Best game of the First Quarter: Oct. 22, Lightning 5, San Jose 2.
Facing a team with the best record in hockey (right now), the Lightning completely dominated the Sharks from the outset. Rookie James Wright scored his first NHL goal just 30 seconds into the contest while Ryan Malone, Steven Stamkos, and Andrej Meszaros each added their own to help Tampa Bay build a 4-1 lead.
Stamkos would end any doubt of a Sharks comeback with an empty net goal.
Mike Smith was on fire, making 32 saves.
Worst game of the First Quarter: Oct. 15, Ottawa 7, Lightning 1.
Mike Smith gave the Lightning no chance in this one. Smith surrendered all seven goals in Ottawa's rout of the Bolts. Tampa Bay didn't even get on the board until they were down by five goals.
Smith was off on his angles and simply had no feel for the puck. The defense in front of him didn't help much, looking lethargic most of the game.
Tampa Bay would get their revenge on the Sens a few weeks later with a 5-2 whooping that wasn't as close as the score indicated.
What We've Learned: This Lightning hockey team can compete for a playoff spot.
Tampa Bay has stood toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the NHL and hasn't blinked. They've already registered 10 victories, a feat they didn't register last season until after Christmas.
Tampa Bay has star power in Stamkos, Ryan Malone, St. Louis, and when he decides he's interested in playing—Vincent Lecavalier.
They've gotten solid goaltending from Antero Niittymaki.
With Mattais Ohlund and Victor Hedman, they have stability along their blue line.
What we still need to know: Can the Lightning be consistent?
Consistency has been the biggest problem for this hockey team thus far. As I mentioned above, they look superb one night, abysmal on others.
If the Lightning truly wants to return to the playoffs and more importantly, do some damage when they get there, it needs to bring their game every night.
Prediction: I like the look of this young hockey club. If they can stay away from the injury bug (the team has been without Mattais Ohlund for a few games now, a big hole on that blue line) then there's a good chance they can become what all Lightning fans hope: a playoff-caliber club.
Right now, I say this team will end up around 94 points on the year, which should be good for a top eight spot.
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