TAMPA, Fla. – The teams were still in the Play-Doh phase of the season the last time the Wild and Lightning squared off, switching shapes until eventually settling into a mold that fit their identity.
And since a 5-4 overtime win for the Wild on Oct. 20, it’s become clear what Tampa Bay has emerged as and that’s unequivocally the NHL’s best operation — a distinction that will make Thursday’s visit to Amalie Arena one of the stiffest matchups the Wild is poised to face during its continued pursuit to lock down a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
“It’s just going to be a challenge,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “That’s all it is. I think we’re playing good hockey, and you never want to pump up the other team. You just understand they’re a very good hockey team, and we’re going to have to be at our best.”
Not only has the Lightning dominated the league by today’s standards, but it’s also measured up to historical greatness.
Tampa Bay’s 106 points are 17 more than the No. 2 Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division, and it recently tied the NHL record for fastest to 50 wins by reaching it in just 66 games. Amid that mind-boggling pace, the team is within striking distance of the record for most points in a season (132) held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.
Winger Nikita Kucherov leads the NHL in points with 108, which has already tied Tampa Bay’s franchise record for most in a season, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has won 10 in a row. The Lightning is also a spotless 8-0 in its past eight home games.
“They are, I think, a cut above most of the teams in the league,” coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’ll be a great test.”
This isn’t the same Wild team, though, either. After an early surge then a midseason swoon, the team’s regained form as a plucky competitor — a turnaround endorsed by its current season-high seven-game point streak (5-0-2).
But while consecutive shootout losses to the Predators maintained that run, they also exposed some potential trouble spots that could undermine the Wild’s effort to continue this productivity.
The power play is in an 0-for-8 rut, with the slide being exacerbated in the 5-4 shootout loss Tuesday in Nashville since the Wild failed to register a shot on goal in any of its four chances — which included a 4-on-3 look in overtime.
“We’re a little impatient,” winger Jason Zucker said. “We’re trying to make plays really quick. We have a little more time. I think we gotta get on the same page a little bit more.”
Building that chemistry is a process while welcoming new players into the mix, but recent acquisition Kevin Fiala seems to be getting more comfortable; he scored two goals Tuesday, while fellow winger Pontus Aberg had one — both their firsts with the Wild.
Where the Wild still looks out of sorts, though, is at the beginning of the first period since the Predators converted in first half of the frame in each game.
“Our starts are the things that hurt us the most,” Boudreau said “The first seven minutes of the game, it’s like we dip our toe in the water and see how the game is going to go and then react to it. We definitely can’t do that against Tampa because they get leads [and then] they prey on you because then you have to open up.”
How the Wild has fared with a lead in the third period has also been an issue.
In both contests, the Predators scored tying goals in the period; during the 3-2 shootout decision Sunday, Nashville capitalized with 4 minutes, 19 seconds to go. But the Wild still managed to bank a point, which has been critical to its playoff push and reinforcing its resilience, and that could certainly come in handy against the Lightning.
“I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t beat them,” Dubnyk said. “We’ve beat a lot of good teams here, and it’s going to be a fun challenge — something that can kind of catapult us forward if we get one there.”