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Lightning centre Steven Stamkos and Maple Leafs centre Leo Komarov look for the puck during a game on Jan. 2, 2018.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Tampa Bay Lightning's ride to the top of the NHL was powered by a lot of pain.

Some of that pain came from the school of hard knocks – after making the Stanley Cup final in 2014-15, the Lightning only went as far as the Eastern Conference final the next season and then out of the playoffs entirely in 2016-17. And some of that pain was literal – much of last season's disappointment was the result of a knee injury that ended superstar Steven Stamkos's season after 17 games and there were other injuries up and down the roster.

But all of that pain resulted in a great deal of experience for the large number of young players on the Lightning roster, as they came into the NHL earlier than planned to fill in for some veterans or moved into positions of greater responsibility as head coach Jon Cooper juggled his lineup. It was that experience, Stamkos said Tuesday, that had the Lightning first overall in the NHL with a 29-8-2 record after their 2-0 win over their Atlantic Division rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in their first meeting this season.

"We believe in each other," Stamkos said. "We have the confidence in our ability whether at home or on the road.

"This group was always, when we had our early success as a team, lacking that experience. Well, we have that now. And the guys that came up play with poise as well. We know we haven't accomplished anything yet but we're gearing up towards, hopefully, a successful season that leads into the playoffs. We're just happy for the most part with our consistency so far this year."

The consistency not only represents the solid work ethic the Lightning display every time out but their play at both ends of the ice. The Bolts had a superb +53 goal-differential before the Leafs game thanks to their 146 goals-for, best in the NHL, and 93 goals-against, third in the league. Their power play is second-best in the league with a 25.2-per-cent success rate.

Individually, the Lightning have reasons for their success spread all over the roster. Stamkos came back from his injury season in high style, as he has 49 points, tied for third in the NHL, with linemate Nikita Kucherov leading the league with 56. This has the Lightning in the odd position of having both Stamkos and Kucherov in the conversation as the NHL's most-valuable player.

Also contributing mightily to the Lightning's powerhouse offence are forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, the left winger on Stamkos's line with 33 points, second-year centre Brayden Point (36 points) and Tyler Johnson (29).

Stamkos says his knee injury last season had one positive aspect. It allowed Point, 21, to get his feet wet as the Lightning's No. 1 centre as Stamkos's replacement and then hit the ice flying this season. In 38 games between wingers Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Point had 16 goals and 20 assists.

"He's such a smart player," Stamkos said of Point. "He has the skill set but not every often do you see a guy his age come in with the mental part of the game down. That's the preparation, that's the way he practices. He's probably the most low-key guy I've ever met. That's a great attitude to have as a young guy.

"He got a chance last year with all the injuries and as a young player that's all you can ask for, a chance to show what you can do. I knew from the moment I stepped on the ice at training camp and saw him for the first time this summer, he was going to be a special player this year. You could tell he had that extra jump in his step. He had the confidence from playing a big role last year. He's a huge reason we're off to the start we are."

On the back end, the Lightning have a couple of award candidates as well, which contributes to their success as much as the offensive side does. Victor Hedman had 29 points by Tuesday, and is having another James Norris Trophy season on defence. Also helping out is 19-year-old rookie Mikhail Sergachev, who was obtained from the Montreal Canadiens last summer for forward Jonathan Drouin. He is playing well beyond his years.

But the biggest single reason for the Lightning's consistency on defence is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 23-year-old was given the top job last season and showed he was ready for it. Now he leads NHL goaltenders with 26 wins and beat the Leafs for his second consecutive shutout and sixth of the season, tops in the NHL.

Cooper said the main reason for his team's improvement this season is consistency. But that, he added, "starts with our goaltender."

"He gives you a chance to win every single night," Cooper said. "You can look at the box score and say it was 5-0, but nobody knows there were two breakaways when the score was 1-0 and 3-0 and he stopped them both."

Funny thing. Vasilevskiy did stop a Leafs breakaway. It was on Mitch Marner midway through the second period with the score 0-0. The Leafs were just starting to stir at that point and did manage several scoring chances over the last half of the period but could never get the puck past Vasilevskiy.

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