Our year-end review of 2017’s biggest local sports stories continues

13:  Lightning Dominate Early Season Schedule

With Steven Stamkos returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of the 2016-17 NHL season and Tampa Bay sporting a roster loaded with scoring talent, expectations were somewhat high for the Lightning when they started their 25th anniversary campaign.

Perhaps only the most ardent, optimistic Lightning fans could have expected what unfolded starting in October.  The Lightning will almost certainly finish 2017 with the best record in hockey, the most goals in hockey, the fewest goals surrendered in the Eastern Conference, and the two top scorers in the game.

Stamkos’ return has had an incredible impact.  The all-world center has been particularly sharp in his passing, finding people for assists all over the ice.  That said, it has been Nikita Kucherov who has sent the Bolts to a new level.  At the moment, Kucherov leads the NHL in goals (24) and points (51).  The forward has succeeded on the first line alongside Stamkos, and on the team’s second line with the hard-working Brayden Point.

The work of netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy has also contributed to the Tampa Bay surge.  Vasilevskiy has matured into one of the top goaltenders in all of hockey, taking Ben Bishop’s workload with no problem whatsoever to lead the NHL in wins and be among the league leaders in time on ice.

At this point in the season, the NHL looks up to the Lightning.  They’re currently the clear favorites for the President’s Trophy for the league’s best record, which also makes them among the favorites for the Stanley Cup.  For good measure, Tampa Bay also hosts an All Star contest that will likely involve more than its fair share of Lightning players.

The Lightning aren’t just trying to