When you’re already one of the NHL’s best teams and then you proceed to do a clean sweep through California, you deserve to sit above the rest. For a week. Or maybe more, in this case.
Tampa Bay has made its absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring look like the one-year respite it really was. The Lightning had Steven Stamkos for only 17 games and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was learning how to be a regular starter. And they still won 42 games and missed a playoff spot by a point.
Now they’re back to being a clear threat to win the Eastern Conference. Vasilevskiy is handling the No. 1 just fine while Stamkos and running mate Nikita Kucherov are tearing up the league. They’re so deep that accomplished grinders Chris Kunitz and Ryan Callahan are on their fourth line.
They’re one more impact defenseman away from being the odds-on Stanley Cup favorite. If they aren’t already. (Records in parentheses are as of Sunday’s games).
1. Lightning (14-2-2). Still trying to figure out how GM Steve Yzerman kept all of his impact players and built this juggernaut within the salary cap. (3)
2. Blues (13-4-1). Mike Yeo issued a call before upcoming western Canada trip, telling his group that better starts are needed after Islanders issued a wake-up call at home. (1)
3. Kings (11-4-2). Losing to Tampa Bay and San Jose is no crime, but they’re now dealing with their first bit of adversity after losing consecutive games for first time. (2)
4. Predators (9-5-2). Winners of four in a row, Nashville got a goal and assist from new second-line center Kyle Turris in his debut. (5)
5. Sharks (10-6-0). It isn’t pretty hockey under Coach Pete DeBoer, but they’re willing to grind away with a suffocating defense. Now 5-1 in one-goal games. (6)
6. Maple Leafs (12-7-0). Four-game win streak is a nice response to a 1-5-0 spell and they’ve done it without Auston Matthews, who is out due to an upper-body injury. (8)
7. Devils (11-4-2). Young talent keeps producing….