Game of the night - Nov. 3 - Lightning look to continue dominance of Kings in LA

Tampa Bay Lightning (7-2-2) at Los Angeles Kings (8-3-0), STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, Calif.

Yes, I am serious. Have you not looked at the standings recently?

Just about a month into the season, the Lightning and Kings are at the top of their respective conferences.

Hey, if the Saints and Giants can come out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl and World Series, who's to say one of these teams can't take the Stanley Cup?

For Tampa Bay – which is tied with high-scoring Washington first in the Southeast Division and has a game in hand - its hot start is the continuation of a quick turnaround from last-place finishes in 2008 and 2009.

Last season, the Bolts didn’t make the playoffs, but totaled 80 points to place third in the Southeast. Despite coming off a loss Wednesday, they're playing right now as if they could win it all.

The key to Tampa Bay’s success? Steven Stamkos - and it pains me to no end to have to admit that.

Picked first overall in 2008, I called Stamkos a bust after the then-18-year-old failed to make much of an initial impression with no points in his first seven games and struggled for much of the first half of his rookie season.

With a return to Sarnia long out of the question, things changed on Feb. 17, 2009, when Stamkos recorded all of Tampa Bay’s goals in a 5-3 home loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Since then, guess who leads the league with 77 goals scored including 34 on the power play? Hint: It's not Ovechkin. Or Crosby. Or Malkin, Semin, Toews, Kane or Gaborik.

So. consider this my mea culpa: Stamkos is the superstar few know about, and needs to be talked about in the same breath as Ovechkin and Crosby.

Now, fellow STATS puckhead Jon Palmieri can STFU.

For years, the face of the Lightning franchise was Vincent Lecavalier and, to a lesser extent, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards, now with the Dallas Stars. The three of them were keys in leading the Lightning to their only Stanley Cup in 2004 before the lockout.

While Lecavalier is still the captain, and the diminutive St. Louis can still score in bunches, it's clear the Lightning's success rests with Stamkos.

After going from 23 goals as a rookie to tying for the NHL lead with 51 last season, first-year coach Guy Boucher told USA Today last month not to put so much stock into numbers because he wants Stamkos to be more of a two-way player.

"We have to watch out when we look at numbers," Boucher said. "Improving doesn't necessarily mean he has to get more than 50 goals. He might get 42 goals and be a better player."

Stamkos getting better than last season when he tied Crosby for the league lead with 51 goals? Doing more and scoring less? Scary, scary thought.

No. 91 scored - what else? - a power-play goal 21 seconds into the third period Wednesday to lift Tampa Bay in a 2-1 lead over the Anaheim Ducks, a game the Lightning went on to lose 3-2 in overtime.

Still, Stamkos' 10th goal of the season moved him into a tie with the Blackhawks' Patrick Sharp for the NHL lead.

"We expected a tough game," Stamkos said. "They've been struggling as of late and they were coming back home, so they wanted to come out strong - and I think they did that. It just took us too long to wake up."

Los Angeles will get a key player back in Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty after missing six games with a concussion.

"No question you miss your top defenseman, but the good thing is that we came through it in pretty good shape," coach Terry Murray told the Kings' official website. "It shows a lot of character on the team. Guys stepped up and played very well in the games that he was out.

Los Angeles allowed 16 goals while going 4-2-0 without Doughty. Still, there is no question the Kings missed what Doughty can bring.

Selected second in 2008 after Stamkos, Doughty emerged last season by finishing third among defensemen with 59 points. That put him ahead of more established names like Pronger, Gonchar, Lidstrom and Niedermayer.

Los Angeles has allowed six goals while winning its first four at home. Jonathan Quick stopped 39 shots, and improved to 7-1-0 with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday.

The pick? Since joining the NHL in 1992, the Lightning have simply owned the Kings in LA, going 10-1-0 with two ties. I don't see much changing this year.


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