Despite last night's debacle in Pittsburgh, the Tampa Bay Lightning have completed the best first half in their history. Their 53 points has them in first place in the Southeast division, and the second seed overall in the conference (two points behind the leader, Pittsburgh).
It's been an amazing beginning for owner Jeff Vinik, General Manager Steve Yzerman, and Head Coach Guy Boucher. Usually a team with this much turnover in the front office doesn't fair that well the first year—as players are shipped in and out, a system is learned and the roster is crafted to support it.
Both Boucher and Yzerman warned fans during training camp that it might not be a quick turnaround, and that the Lightning could take a few steps back before they advance forward.
It's one of the few things this season the dynamic duo have been wrong about.
Record: 24-12-5 (53 points), first in the Southeast Division, second in the Eastern Conference
Second Quarter Record (20 games): 12-5-3 (29 points)
Current Pace: 48-24-10 (106 points)
Most Valuable Player: Steven Stamkos, Fwd
What else can you say about Steven Stamkos that hasn't already been written?
31 goals and 56 points, both second in the NHL, a league leading 13 power play goals, Stamkos has been unconscious offensively.
His speed and skill has opened up the ice for his linemates as well. Ageless Martin St. Louis is third in the league with 51 points.
As long as Stamkos is on the ice, Tampa Bay has a shot at winning.
Most Improved Player: Teddy Purcell, Fwd
If there's one player who's game has benefited from head coach Guy Boucher's aggressive style, it's Teddy Purcell. The speedy Purcell already has career highs in goals (six) and points (18), teaming up with fellow youngster Dana Tyrell to provide the Bolts a potent third/fourth line.
Purcell has been up and down the Lightning lineup, even seeing some ice time with Stamkos and St. Louis.
He's also improved on defense. A -9 plus/minus (including his time in LA) last season, Purcell has brought that down to a -3.
Most Disappointing Player: Simon Gagne, Fwd
When the Lightning acquired Simon Gagne from the Philadelphia Flyers, they knew they were taking a chance with the oft-injured forward. They hoped he would team with captain Vincent Lecavalier to give the Lightning a dangerous one-two punch in forward lines.
Unfortunately, Gagne was injured early in the season and since his return he hasn't developed the chemistry that Tampa Bay hoped he would have with Lecavalier.
Gagne's played in 23 games, scoring 3 goals and 4 assists.
Tampa Bay hopes that if he can stay healthy the second half of the season, he may be able to provide the secondary scoring that can propel the team deep into the post-season.
Best Game of the season: Nov.18, Tampa Bay 8, Philadelphia 7
One of the wildest regular season contests in recent memory, the Tampa Bay Lightning three times overcame two goal deficits to pull off an improbable victory.
The clubs combined for nine goals in the first period then traded blows through the second before Nate Thompson scored the only goal of the third period to provide the margin of victory for the Lightning.
Worst Game of the Season: Jan. 5, Pittsburgh 8, Tampa Bay 1
Coming off an emotional war with the Washington Capitals the night before, the Lightning completely mailed in the second end of the back-to-back road trip against two of the Eastern Conference elite. The Penguins made the Lightning pay, humiliating Tampa Bay with 6 goals in the first period, three against Dwayne Roloson—who looked so solid the night before.
Roloson, who returned later in the game after getting pulled in the first period, was ultimately responsible for five of the eight goals.
Tampa Bay gave up the first goal six seconds into the game and was never in it after that.
What We've Learned: The Lightning are streaky
Tampa Bay is one streaky team this season. After opening the season with a 7-2-1 record, the Lightning lost six of seven. They followed that up with a five game winning streak followed by a 2-3-2 run. They're currently on another hot run, going 9-2-1 in their last 12.
What We Don't Know: Can the Lightning survive their subpar goaltending?
Lightning fans hoped the answer had been found between the pipes when Tampa Bay acquired former Isles netminder Dwayne Roloson. Sure enough, Roloson was sensational in his Lightning debut, shutting out Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals.
The next night, Roloson surrendered five goals in an 8-1 loss to Pittsburgh. One of the strange truths about the Lightning's season is they've posted the third best record in the Eastern Conference despite surrendering the most goals in the conference.
Only Edmonton, who is last in the Western Conference, has surrendered more goals than Tampa Bay. The Lightning have given up five of more goals in a game seven times this season.
If the Lightning hope to contend for a Stanley Cup, either Roloson or one of their younger goalies will need to find consistency and provide some stability in front of the net.
Prediction- Playoffs, but no division title
There's no doubt in my mind the Tampa Bay Lightning will end their two year exile from post-season and will get in the Stanley Cup tournament.
Unfortunately, they won't be a top 3 seed as division champion—at least not until they solve their goaltending issues. Dwayne Roloson could very well be the answer to that problem, but it's difficult to count on a 41-year-old goalie night in and night out.
You can only outscore opponents 5-4 for so long. Your snipers will go through their slumps and the scoring just won't be there—if you don't have the ability to keep the puck out of your net then you're going to find yourself in a bit of a tailspin.
The Bolts have banked enough points to survive a prolonged losing skid but with the Capitals and Thrashers hot on their heels—it may cost them a division title.