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Lightning take a shocking 3-0 series lead; Who’s to blame in Washington?

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The Tampa Bay Lightning might just be the hottest team in hockey right now. They won their sixth consecutive playoff game thanks to another strong third period performance, leaving the favored Washington Capitals on the brink of elimination.

Tampa Bay 4, Washington 3; Lightning lead series 3-0.

Expect plenty of “Lightning strikes twice/thrice” type puns from this one, as the game turned on a dime in the final frame. The Capitals managed to take a 3-2 lead into the third period, but the Bolts scored two goals just 15 seconds apart to win Game 3.

It’s natural to fixate on the Capitals blame game, but let’s give Tampa Bay their much-deserved credit first. Sean Bergenheim continued his unexpected hot streak by scoring the game’s first goal. Alex Ovechkin should not be a scapegoat in Washington, as the spirited Russian set up Mike Knuble’s 1-1 goal and also scored a goal. John Carlson made it 2-1 while Vincent Lecavalier is also red-hot lately, as he banged in a rebound to make it 2-2. Ovechkin pounced on a loose puck to give the Caps a 3-2 lead on the power play.

Tampa scores two goals in a stunning 15-second span

For yet another game, Ovechkin’s big goal wouldn’t be enough for a Capitals win. Steven Stamkos capitalized on a bad Eric Fehr turnover to fire an absolute laser to make it 3-3.

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Things went from troubling to downright heart-breaking when the Lightning took a lead thanks to Ryan Malone crashing the net. The puck went off of his skate, but it was ruled a good goal. That would ultimately be the game-winner in this contest.

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It might be easy to blame Capitals goalie Michal Neuvirth and it’s true that he allowed a goal or two that he would like to have back. Still, the tough-to-rattle goalie made some huge saves to keep Washington in the game. Neuvirth stopped a Bergenheim shorthanded chance and nullified a horrific Nicklas Backstrom turnover to keep the deficit at 4-3, but the Capitals couldn’t pierce the Lightning defense again.

The Capitals three biggest scapegoats

Naturally, the next question is: who or what should get the blame? Here are my three potential choices.

1. Horrible third periods: If there’s one signature thread to the first three games of this series, it’s that the Lightning finished games stronger. They out-shot the Capitals 15-5 in Game 3’s final frame, winning that period 2-0. Washington carried much of the play in Game 2, but Tampa Bay turned it around in the third with a 11-5 shot deficit (both teams scored one goal in that third period). The Lightning didn’t out-shoot the Caps in Game 1’s third, but they limited Washington to a 5-4 shot advantage as they sat on their lead and also scored an empty-netter.

So, overall, the Bolts out-scored the Capitals 4-1 (counting an empty-netter) and doubled their shots (30-15) in three third periods.

2. Bruce Boudreau: Personally, I think the Capitals might make a mistake if they get rid of Bellicose Bruce. Still, in this media congested age, it’s easy to lose patience after a few disappointments. While I’m easier on him than most, it’s tough to deny that Guy Boucher is coming out on top. Here’s what Keith Jones and Mike Keenan said about Boudreau in the first intermission.

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3. Nicklas Backstrom:
For years, Backstrom was the one Capitals star who jived with casual and hardcore hockey fans alike. The sweet-passing Swede has zero goals and two assists in eight playoff games, which is far worse than any supposed  Alexander Semin and Ovechkin stink-bombs from past years. Maybe he’s playing through an injury, but the Caps simply need more from their less-renowned star.

Final conclusions

Ultimately, the Capitals hope to be the fourth team in NHL history to come back from a 3-0 deficit. They’ll need to shake off tonight’s loss quickly because the two teams will meet again tomorrow night.

The Lightning simply need to continue their trend of timely scoring, sufficient defense and strong goaltending. Tampa Bay’s big three forwards Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier and Stamkos are coming up huge and support players like Dominic Moore and Bergenheim are playing over their heads. It wasn’t Roloson’s best game, but maybe that’s because he set the bar so high.

Boucher said he was happy Game 2 didn’t go too deep into overtime after his team slugged it out in a seven game series in the first round, so an early second round sweep would do wonders if the squad is truly tired.

Burns continued to build Hart argument in Sharks win last night

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 12:  San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns #88 celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during their game at the Prudential Center on February 12, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The San Jose Sharks were facing a team that had been playing well in an arena buzzing with energy following a pregame ceremony.

Once they handled the initial onrush, the Sharks struck first to subdue the crowd and their opponent.

Brent Burns scored two goals, Aaron Dell had a career-high 36 saves and the Sharks beat the Arizona Coyotes for the first time this season, 4-1 on Saturday night.

“We kind of weathered their storm early; there was a lot of energy in the building,” Sharks center Joe Pavelski said. “We got to (Coyotes goalie Mike Smith) in the first period. When you get one or two on him early, it kind of breaks them down a little bit and play from behind. That was a big key.”

The Sharks bounced back from a slow start in their last game by scoring two goals in the first period and another early in the second to quiet a crowd energized by a ceremony honoring the first Coyotes team in the desert. Dell was sharp in his 11th start of the season, and the Pacific Division-leading Sharks were good in front of him to avoid a season sweep (1-3-1) by the last-place Coyotes.

Melker Karlsson had a goal and two assists, and Micheal Haley had a goal and an assist for San Jose.

Burns, of course, was at the center of the offense from the blue line.

The NHL’s third-leading scorer, he had a goal in the first period and his 27th of the season in the third to match the team record for goals by a defenseman that he set in 2015-16. It was his third two-goal game of the season and second in the last three games.

“He’s having an MVP season. He’s been that good for us all year and it’s every night,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. “I don’t know what else to say. In my mind, he’s the best player in the league right now.”

The Coyotes could not capitalize on a rowdy, sellout crowd. Arizona peppered Dell with 29 shots in the first two periods but didn’t score until Martin Hanzal punched in a rebound in the third, when they were down 3-0.

Hanzal scored his fifth goal in five games and Smith stopped 29 shots for Arizona.

“We were pretty good in the period and I don’t want to say they were lucky goals, but they scored first and after that, it’s hard to chase a team like the Sharks,” Hanzal said.

The Sharks trailed 3-1 in the first period and 6-3 in the third before rallying for a point against Florida on Wednesday. On Saturday, they took an early lead when Burns fired a shot through traffic to beat Smith to the stick side.

Karlsson made it 2-0 late in the period, keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 and wristing one past Smith on the stick side again.

San Jose kept the pressure up early in the second, making it a three-goal lead when Haley scored on a one-timer from between the circles for his first of the season.

Burns stopped Arizona’s momentum late in the period, wristing a shot that slipped through Smith’s pads on a power play.

“That wasn’t my best game. I thought our team did a good job tonight to give ourselves a chance to win,” Smith said. “They were opportunistic in the first period and we couldn’t capitalize on our chances and when that happens, you usually lose.”

NOTES: Along with honoring their 1996-97 team – the first after the franchise moved from Winnipeg – in a ceremony before the game, Arizona also announced its all-time starting six, which included current players Smith, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and captain Shane Doan. … Haley’s goal was his first since March 5, 2016 against Vancouver. … Hanzal moved past Pat Elynuik for 13th on the franchise list with his 116th career goal.

UP NEXT

San Jose hosts Boston on Sunday before getting a five-day break from all hockey-related activities.

Arizona hosts Anaheim on Monday before playing five of its next six games on the road.

NBC and NBCSN have you covered for Hockey Day in America

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With two games on NBC and then two more on NBCSN, your Sunday should be jam-packed with Hockey Day in America action. A look at the hockey hotbed of Warroad, Minnesota adds a delectable cherry on top, too.

If you need a guide to this party of pucks and patriotism, look no further than this post.

Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie and the dominant Capitals take on Ryan McDonagh and the Blueshirts. The Metropolitan Division represents some of the NHL’s upper crust, so don’t be fooled by the Rangers being the first wild card while the Caps are tops in the East; both of these teams can go. Kenny Albert and Brian Boucher will be there to call the action.

MORE: For Oshie, ties to Warroad run deep

Detroit Red Wings at Pittsburgh Penguins, 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC

Mike “Doc” Emrick and Eddie Olczyk will be in the booth for this battle between teams that met in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final series in 2008 and 2009. Along with usual suspects like Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg, these teams feature American scorers such as Dylan Larkin and, of course, Phil Kessel.

Chicago Blackhawks at Buffalo Sabres, 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN

The action shifts to NBCSN as Patrick Kane and the Blackhawks hope to teach Jack Eichel and the upstart Sabres a lesson or two. The Blackhawks are in playoff position, as usual, while Buffalo is rallying to try to make a push of its own. Gord Miller and Joe Micheletti will be your guides.

MORE: Islanders forward Brock Nelson’s journey from Warroad to the NHL

Boston Bruins at San Jose Sharks, 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Hockey Day in America’s coverage closes off with this matchup between David Backes‘ Bruins and Joe Pavelski‘s Sharks. Randy Hahn, Andy Brickley and Bret Hedican will take you through this match between the Pacific Division’s top team and a Bruins team fighting to stick in the East playoff picture.

Barkov’s beautiful goal pushes Panthers into playoff position

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 26: Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers circles the net with the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the BB&T Center on November 26, 2016 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shoot out. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers just won’t be denied as they end the night in the East’s top eight.

It’s fitting, then, that Aleksander Barkov wouldn’t be denied on his game-winner against Los Angeles on Saturday.

Barkov bursts beyond multiple Kings, fights off what would have been an obstruction penalty and then beats Peter Budaj by the narrowest of margins to give the Panthers a 3-2 lead 15 seconds into the third period. They would never relinquish that edge to Los Angeles, winning their fourth game in a row.

In the process, the Panthers – a team that seemed to be fledgling when it fired Gerard Gallant – now find themselves in the East’s top eight. Heck, they’re actually above the wild card fray by a hair.

Before we get to that … just bask in the glow of this Barkov goal:

Again, it was such a small window to beat Budaj, too:

(If the Panthers’ place in the standings doesn’t sway you into taking them seriously, maybe note plays like that and the fact that Barkov has 20 points in his last 17 games.)

OK, so with this win, the Panthers did some serious leapfrogging. They now rank third in the Atlantic Division (thanks to a game in hand on Boston) and have more points than Toronto as far as wild card concerns go, anyway.

Atlantic Division rankings

1. Canadiens – 70 points in 59 games
2. Senators – 68 points in 56 games
3. Panthers – 64 points in 57 games

Bruins – 64 in 58
Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Sabres – 62 in 59
Lightning – 58 in 57
Red Wings – 56 in 58

From a wild card perspective

Third in Atlantic – Panthers – 64 points in 57 games
Second wild card – Bruins – 64 in 58

Maple Leafs – 63 in 47
Islanders – 62 in 57
Sabres – 62 in 59
Flyers – 61 in 58
Devils – 60 in 58
Lightning – 58 in 57
Hurricanes – 56 in 54
Red Wings – 56 in 58

Everything’s so close that the Panthers can’t pop champagne bottles, but they’re also very much in control over their hopes. While it never hurts to see your competitors stumble, the Panthers can take care of business. They “control their own destiny,” to use silly sports parlance.

And considering how they’ve been playing lately, they might be as tough to handle in the playoffs as Barkov was to stop on that outstanding 3-2 goal.

Stars made Dave Strader’s return to the booth special

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It was a special night as the Dallas Stars beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 in overtime, but the most memorable moment wasn’t the win or Antoine Roussel‘s hat trick.

Instead, it was how the team embraced Dave Strader’s return to the broadcasting booth as he continues to fight cancer.

Don’t be ashamed if his comments to the Dallas Morning News leave you emotional:

“This is the first time, to be honest with you, that for four hours I didn’t feel like I was sick at all,” Strader said after the game. “Maybe it was the adrenaline high, but I really, really feel great right now.”

Again, the team really did some great things to welcome him back, but the highlight was saluting him after the game. Incredible stuff.

“What a gesture by the boys … meant so much to me and my wife! Thank you.” Strader tweeted after the game.

As this post notes, Strader is expected to do play-by-play for four more Stars games.