NHL on NBCSN: Lightning off to hot start, but so are other top Central teams

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning have plenty of recent experience playing in a top-heavy division.

On their way to the 2020 Stanley Cup, the Lightning had to deal with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins. And, for all of their flaws and drama, the Maple Leafs boast the kind of offense that could conceivably give just about any team some headaches.

So, it was hard not to look at the Lightning as winners of divisional realignment to a new Central Division, even if they weren’t necessarily the biggest ones. (Even in that division.)

Really, many likely wondered if the Lightning’s biggest challenges would come from within. How much would losing Nikita Kucherov hurt their chances? And would they yawn and groan through some of the season thanks to a Stanley Cup hangover?

[Watch Live: Lightning vs. Red Wings, 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN]

Well, it’s extremely early — particularly for a Central Division hit harder than most by COVID — but no, the Lightning’s toughest rivals haven’t yet been the Lightning. Instead, the Lightning bump elbows with other hot-starting top teams in the Central Division.

Lightning off to hot start, but so are other Central Division teams

Take a look at the Central Division standings and you’ll see how similar the starts are for the top four teams:

Lightning, Central Division standings

Naturally, six or seven games represents a small sample size. That’s even true during a condensed 56-game season. (Then again, who knows if all 31 NHL teams will reach 56 games considering various postponements?)

Even so, it’s remarkable how similar the records and results have been between the Lightning and other top Central Division teams in the Hurricanes, Panthers, and Stars so far. All four teams have scored at least 22 goals, and none have allowed more than 17. All four of those teams are undefeated at “home,” whether there have been any fans there or not.

Looking at those other top Central Division teams, it’s easy to pick the Lightning as the frontrunner to take the top seed, or at least emerge from the bracket. Even with the Bolts lacking Kucherov, those other teams face bigger questions. Perennially, the Hurricanes face questions about goaltending. As great as the Stars look so far, they’ve been hit even harder by injuries than their 2020 Stanley Cup Final opponent. And, the Panthers … well. You know.

But it must be a touch jarring for the defending champions to begin fairly strong, yet find themselves a few bounces from either first or fourth.

On the bright side, the distance between fourth and the rest of the division is pretty large, at least for this young season. Sure, the pesky Blue Jackets (11 points) and Blackhawks (10 points) aren’t that far behind the Lightning in standings points, but they’ve burned through 11 games apiece.

Still, for a team with the Lightning’s aspirations — and, frankly, operating costs — merely making the playoffs isn’t much of a victory. Granted, they showed last season that they don’t need the top seed … but it sure would be nice. (Especially if that means getting an easier first-round draw than, say, the Hurricanes or Stars. Sorry again, Panthers, or other Central teams.)

A promising start, though

But, hey, it’s nice to see that the Lightning mostly hit the ground running.

Just look at this Lightning mailbag from The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub. required), and you get the vibe that this team is mainly dealing with “champagne problems.”

Virtually every important Lightning player is off to a sturdy start. Maybe most importantly, Steven Stamkos looks like the Steven Stamkos we know and goalies fear. With nine points, Stamkos leads the Lightning (and he’s also tied for the team lead with four goals).

Not far behind Stamkos, Brayden Point and Victor Hedman both have eight points. Anthony Cirelli continues to look like a rising star, too.

[Related: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

That said, for a team that went through a grueling playoff run in the bubble, it’s possible the Lightning could hit the wall down the stretch. About a week into the season, Stamkos backed off some of his early comments about feeling better than ever.

“I wouldn’t go that far to say the best I’ve felt all time. Those days are long gone I think,” Stamkos said via the team website. “Definitely the best I’ve felt in 12 months for sure, and, again, the reality was that I hadn’t played a game in a long time besides the 2:47 in the Final. Again, still a process, but I feel like I’m continuing to feel more comfortable and getting better and stronger as we progress with this thing …”

(If you want to feel old, ruminate on Stamkos using weary-veteran-speak with “those days are long gone.” Then realize that Stamkos turns 31 on Feb. 7, and maybe feel even older.)

Avoid the trap

Ultimately, the Central Division standings shouldn’t scare the Lightning.

Perhaps that lack of separation might at least help Tampa Bay stay focused against the Red Wings, though? While Detroit looks more competent than last year’s Dumpster fire version, they’re still heavy underdogs. Being that the Bolts are defending champs, Wednesday’s NBCSN game has the making of a “trap game.”

Socking away points against the Red Wings might not seem important, but Tampa Bay may regret failing to bank early wins if they hit a wall as this season goes along.

(After all, they haven’t faced the other top three teams yet this season.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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