The Tampa Bay Lightning have signaled their intent to hold onto the Stanley Cup, having launched one of the most stringent defenses in recent memory. The Cup holders have only failed to garner three points from a possible 22 so far this season, with 11 games under their belt.

The Lightning lost seven of 10 games before the pause prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they’ve collected wins in 26 of their last 34 games since then, including round-robin and playoff fixtures.

Tuesday’s 6-1 win over the Nashville Predators saw them employ a trapping strategy that handed them enough control to stem a slow start and score six straight goals. The team looks like they won’t be having difficulty playing without right winger Nikita Kucherov, who will miss the entire regular season after undergoing hip surgery in December. They’re also getting secondary scoring, with Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli putting in admirable performances in two wins over the Predators.

The attack looks as powerful as ever, with Steven Stamos and Brayden Point leading in the scoring department.

“I think it’s the consistency level that those guys play with. They roll it out every night,” Predators coach John Hynes said on the back of his team’s fourth clash with Tampa Bay. “They play the same way; they set the tone. When you’re winning, whether you’re losing, their game doesn’t change. I think that you can add those types of players into your team with the type of team Tampa has, it just brings a little bit of a different element to it.

“Sometimes those guys, they drag other guys in the battle. Just watching it, I think (Cooper) started that line most games to set the tone, and I think that that was a little bit of a cultural shift there. But they added the right types of people and players into that group.”

It’s expected that the Lightning will lose consecutive games at certain points during the campaign as such comes with the territory in the NHL. However, they do look primed to retain the Cup and are among the betting favorites to lift it again this year according to the free NHL picks as the bookmakers have them tied on odds with the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche.

Tampa defenseman Mikhail Sergachev recently praised the team’s third line with claims the likes of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow are tough to go up against in practice.

“Those guys are buzzing around,” the Russian said. “It’s constantly, ‘Shoot, retrieve, shoot, retrieve.’ They’re hard to play against. They’re all strong guys. Not the biggest guys, but very tough to battle in the corner and in front of the net. They play very simple but in a very effective way.”

The third line was pivotal to the Lightning’s capture of the Stanley Cup last year, exuding physicality and aggression all the way. The aforementioned trio’s a huge reason the team is 9-1-1 and have gotten off to one of the best starts in the history of the franchise. The third line has helped the Lightning become a grittier team that can mix it up with anyone physically while also being able to play gracefully.

“I think we keep our game pretty simple, and that’s really what we’re good at,” Gourde explained. “We don’t force plays. If it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, we go behind the net, we rim the puck out to our points, and we crash the net.”

Gourde was responsible for scoring a key goal that gave his team a three-goal buffer in the third period against the Predators. The 29-year-old won a faceoff before smashing in a putback off Sergachev’s shot. The goal marked a third consecutive game during which one from that particular line helped secure victory.

“We won the faceoff,” he said. “These guys are trying to get to the net. I’m trying to get to the net,” Gourde said. “I get the rebound. I was fortunate enough to make a move and (score). But that’s the way we play. We grind the game down low, and I think that’s really where we’re really effective.”

So far this season, Gourde has four goals in 11 games for the Lightning, who were facing a tough test against the Florida Panthers at the time of writing. Coleman and Goodrow rank second and third in hits among forwards with 15 and 16 respectively. The pair were basically newcomers last playoffs as they came in as trade-deadline signings but, having gotten some experience playing together, they’ve become quite formidable.

Tampa Bay looks to be in a great position to stake a claim for a second consecutive Stanley Cup but it will be a tough defense, despite their great start. Of course, a 56-game term should help as they’re already well into the regular season though they’ve only played 11 times.