It’s safe to say the Tampa Bay Lightning missed Steven Stamkos last season, but not for the reason you might think.
He missed 65 games in 2016-17, and the Lightning missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Any team would understandably struggle without a superstar, but Tampa Bay didn’t exactly do that.
They finished the season on an 8-1-1 run, missing the playoffs by a single point as Nikita Kucherov scored 40 goals for the first time in his career. All without one of the league’s 10-best players.
With Stamkos back in the lineup, the Lightning are no longer simply formidable, but enter Wednesday night’s matchup against the Sharks as a legitimate juggernaut.
Stamkos and Kucherov comprise the league’s best duo, as the NHL’s top two scorers, and two-thirds of one of its best lines. Only one line has scored more even strength goals than the trio of Stamkos, Kucherov, and Vladislav Namestnikov’s 12.
Kucherov has scored a league-leading 14 goals in 15 games, and Stamkos paces all players with 25 points, including a league-leading 18 assists. You’d expect the 18 to be in the ‘G’ column for a noted sniper like Stamkos, but he’s only converted on 6.9 percent of his shots at even strength.
He hasn’t scored less than 35 goals in a full season since his rookie year a decade ago, so there’s little reason to believe he will struggle to score. Somehow, one of the league’s best lines, on the league’s best team, could be even better.
The Lightning are far from a one-line team, however, as the combination of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, and Yanni Gourde has scored the eighth-most even strength goals of any line. Only one other team, Los Angeles, has two lines in the top ten, and no other pair of lines has scored more than their 21 goals.
Tampa Bay’s famed trio of “triplets” have separated entirely, and Tyler Johnson is centering the team’s third line. This team is so deep up front that Alex Killorn, who has 11 points in 15 games, will skate on the team’s fourth line. Not to mention the team’s blueline, led by Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman.
That’s all to say that San Jose will have their hands full Wednesday night. They’re getting Marc-Edouard Vlasic back from injury just in time, but the Lightning will be the Sharks’ toughest opponent to date.
You'd also be hard-pressed to find a better one all season.