2011-12 season preview: Tampa Bay Lightning

2010-11 record: 46-25-11, 103 points; 2nd in Southeast, 5th in East

Playoffs: Defeated Pittsburgh 4-3 in Eastern quarterfinals, defeated Washington 4-0 in Eastern semifinals, lost to Boston 4-3 in Eastern finals

After new GM Steve Yzerman’s first summer of moves, people expected the Lightning to improve last season. Few expected them though to fall one win short of the Stanley Cup finals. While it might be difficult to match that encore effort, the Bolts still employ an enviable trio in Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Their top players give them a fighting chance against any team, as their East opponents found out in the 2011 playoffs.

Offense

Stamkos became the cover star of NHL 12 and signed a hefty new contract, but St. Louis was the Hart Trophy finalist for a reason: he’s one of the best right wings in the league. Stamkos would be a threat on most teams, but St. Louis’ pitch-perfect passes make him a top five sniper. Those two shouldn’t have much trouble rekindling the magic from the first half of last season, but keeping that going for a full campaign would make the Lightning even scarier.

Then again, Tampa Bay could use some help. Unless he plays with them on the top line (as he did fairly often during the playoffs), Lecavalier will be responsible for generating much of the team’s secondary scoring. The Lightning’s hopes of wrestling the Southeast title from Washington probably rests on the work of Leavalier, Ryan Malone, Steve Downie and breakthrough playoff player Teddy Purcell.

The East’s second-highest scoring offense might dip a little bit with Simon Gagne and playoff surprise Sean Bergenheim having departed, but Tampa Bay’s top-end players should fill the net enough to make up much of the difference.

Defense

On paper, Tampa Bay’s defense is pretty bad. That played itself out in the regular season, as the Lightning allowed 240 goals (just seven less than they scored). For starters, Mattias Ohlund just isn’t the same stellar Swedish blueliner that he was during his prime years with Vancouver.

That being said, the Lightning improved after the addition of Eric Brewer late in the season. He logged big-time minutes and helped the Bolts deal with some tough matchups, especially in their sweep of Washington.

Brewer’s steadiness and the continued development of Victor Hedman give the Lightning some reason to believe that their defense will be better this season, although it is likely to still rank as an area of weakness.

Goalies

Last season, things just weren’t working with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis, so Yzerman shrewdly traded for Dwayne Roloson. While Roloson’s numbers were up and down during the regular season, he gave the team a stabilizing presence in net during the playoffs. His often-dazzling playoff performances earned him another contract.

The obvious worry is Roloson’s age. A potential Eastern contender is weighing its hopes on the shoulders of a man who will turn 42 on Oct. 12.

Thankfully, Yzerman found a solid backup in Mathieu Garon. That doesn’t change the fact that the Lightning is taking a substantial (if short-term) risk with Roloson, but at least they can spell their old goalie when necessary.

Coaching

Guy Boucher stands out thanks to his charm, that 1-3-1 system and a facial scar that demands ‘James Bond villain’ jokes. He would be noteworthy for his coolness alone, but Boucher produced fantastic results in his first season as an NHL coach. Naturally, he’ll face a significant challenge to match that debut campaign.

Breakout candidate

Hedman could make a big leap. He’s getting the experience needed to adjust to the NHL game and has the greed-based motivation of a contract year on his side, too.

The big Swedish defenseman probably ‘broke out’ already, though. If you need a more obscure player, how about Mattias Ritola? The former Detroit Red Wings prospect could have a shot of stepping into Sean Bergenheim’s role if the bounces go his way.

Best-case scenario

Roloson produces an outstanding season, but most importantly gets plenty of rest with Garon receiving 25 starts. Lecavalier finally earns his ridiculous paycheck by producing a healthy point-per-game season while St. Louis and Stamkos work their magic for even more impressive results. The defense comes together thanks to a maturing Hedman and the leadership of Brewer. Tampa Bay makes another deep run in the playoffs, only this time it gets over the hump and makes it to the Cup finals.

Reality

The Lightning are really rolling the dice with Roloson. Again, Garon is a capable backup, but not necessarily the ideal choice if Roloson gets injured – which is a realistic fear given his age. Even if Rollie stays healthy, who’s to say that he’ll be able to put together another great season? Whether it’s due to ability or opportunities, he hasn’t carried a big workload many times in his career – Roloson’s only played 60-plus games twice.

Depth scoring might also be a concern, especially if Lecavalier struggles again with injuries. One can’t help but worry that Boucher’s system won’t be able to cover up that defense’s blemishes for another season, too.

All that negativity aside, the Lightning should challenge for the Southeast title and fall somewhere in the fourth- to sixth-seed range. As long as they make the playoffs, they have the talent to make anyone sweat in a best-of-seven series.

Pretty or not, Senators aim to play their game vs. Penguins in Game 7

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Craig Anderson is a realist, the byproduct of 15 years playing the most demanding position in the NHL.

The Ottawa goaltender would like to chalk his 45-save masterpiece in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Pittsburgh up to his own brilliance. He knows that’s not exactly the case.

“I think you need to be a little bit lucky to be good at times,” Anderson said.

Ottawa has relied on a bit of both during its deepest playoff run in a decade and Anderson helped force Game 7 Thursday night. Yet here the Senators are, alive and still skating with a chance to eliminate the deeper, more experienced and more explosive Stanley Cup champions.

So much for the series being over after the Penguins destroyed Ottawa 7-0 in Game 5.

“I think, if you believe you’re beaten, you’re done already,” Anderson said. “If you believe that you can win, there’s always a chance.”

All the Senators have to do to reach the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history is take down one of the league’s marquee franchises on the road in a building where they were beaten by a touchdown last time out.

No pressure or anything. Really. The Senators weren’t supposed to be here. Then again, in a way neither were the Penguins. No team has repeated in nearly two decades and at times during the season and even during the playoffs this group was too beat up. Too tired from last spring’s Cup run. The bullseye on their backs too big.

Yet they’ve survived behind the brilliance of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, coach Mike Sullivan’s impeccable decisions and a resiliency that has them one game from being the first Cup champion to return to the finals since Detroit in 2009.

Those Red Wings, by the way, fell to the Penguins in seven games. There have been several Game 7s for Pittsburgh in the interim on both sides of the ledger, though the Penguins are 2-0 in Game 7s under Sullivan. They edged Tampa Bay in Game 7 of last year’s East finals and clinically disposed of Presidents’ Trophy winner Washington in Game 7 of the second round earlier this month.

“It’s not something that’s new to them,” Sullivan said. “These guys have been involved in these experiences on a number of occasions, and they have those experiences to draw on. You know, I think they know what to expect, and now it’s a matter of going out and earning it and controlling what they can and doing your very best to get the result that we’re looking.”

The Senators are 0-5 in Game 7s, the last setback coming in the first round to the New York Rangers in 2012. That was five years ago, a lifetime in the NHL. Ottawa rebuilt itself on the fly this season in coach Guy Boucher’s first year. Boucher favors discipline over daring, and while the stat sheet looked awfully one-sided in Game 6, the scoreboard did not.

The Senators understand they’re the underdog and that the idea of a Cup final between first-timer Nashville and a Canadian club from one of the smallest markets in the league won’t exactly draw eyeballs to the screen. They don’t care. They’ll try to play the way they always play on Thursday night. To be successful, they don’t really have a choice.

“We tried to win another way, and we got our butts kicked,” Boucher said.

While both Boucher and Sullivan are doing their best to try and keep their teams focused on the process and not the outcome, in some ways it’s a fool’s errand. It’s the only game all year that will end with the Prince of Wales Trophy presented – but not handed – to the winners. They know. The players do, too.

“I think it’s fun to kind of get lost in those moments and to just do what you can do,” Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said.

Just don’t confuse adrenaline with nerves.

“These are the games, when you’re a kid growing up, that you’re playing in the backyard, the Game 7s and that,” said 40-year-old Pittsburgh forward Matt Cullen, who could play in his final NHL game on Thursday. “So for us as players, this is what it’s all about.”

Game 7 offers the Penguins and their stars the opportunity to cement their legacy while the Senators can complete an improbable run to their sport’s biggest stage.

“We’re against a really good hockey team, the Stanley Cup champion, and we have a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup finals,” Senators forward Derick Brassard said. “We can’t ask for anything better than this, but we just have to have fun with that.”

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Related: Boring style is not a new topic for Senators

Predators are dominating the Stanley Cup Playoffs in rest

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If the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a battle of attrition, then the Nashville Predators are the side that always makes sure everyone has rations and a good place to sleep.

OK, that’s an esoteric way of saying that the Predators have managed to get rest while other teams work deep into playoff series. Consider the gaps that Nashville has seen during this postseason:

April 20: Nashville sweeps the Blackhawks with 4-1 win
April 26: Preds beat the Blues in Game 1 4-3. The Blues eliminated the Wild on April 22.

May 7: Predators eliminated the Blues with a 3-1 verdict in a Game 6.
May 12: They managed a 3-2 overtime win against the Ducks. Anaheim finished off the Oilers on May 10, generating such a quick turnaround that Randy Carlyle couldn’t resist grumbling about it after the series concluded.

May 22: Predators bounce the Ducks with a 6-3 win in Game 6.
May 29: They’ll face either the Penguins or Senators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Eastern Conference Final will end tomorrow (May 25).

People often debate about “rest vs. rust,” but those discussions sometimes gloss over the invisible benefits of merely not playing a game. If the Predators played a Game 7 against the Ducks, they may have suffered another injury. Not sweeping the Blackhawks could have made for a very different series.

Setting the table while others miss opportunities

In no way is this a dismissal of the Predators’ accomplishments. Instead, it’s praise for their mascot-appropriate “killer instinct.”

The Penguins, for instance, needed three tries to eliminate the Washington Capitals and now must face another Game 7 against a pesky Senators team. If Ottawa advances, they will have three more playoff contests under their belt, a highly relevant consideration when you consider how taxing this run has been for Erik Karlsson.

Now, the Predators won’t begin the Stanley Cup Final 100 percent. Ryan Johansen won’t magically get to play just because they get a week of rest rather than a few days.

Still, the Predators’ legs will be as fresh as they can be, which is a rare luxury for games played into June.

They’ve earned these breaks by eliminating teams in unflinching ways and by winning road games in tough situations. If they win it all, that reduced fatigue has to at least be considered one of the advantages that they leveraged to victory.

Young Mitch Marner meme isn’t lost on Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs

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A couple of days ago, Mitch Marner was spotted at Pearson Airport in Toronto with a backwards baseball cap after flying back from a very impressive and productive run at the World Hockey Championship.

Hockey Twitter exploded with well-meaning laughter as the dazzlingly talented 20-year-old looked even younger than 20.

Even a few days later, it really is a sight to behold, whether you need a respite from politics or biting your nails about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final:

As much as many of us deride this age of social media, it’s been a goldmine for self deprecating comedy from hockey players; as it turns out, Roberto Luongo doesn’t have that market completely cornered, either.

Not long ago, Auston Matthews jumped in on the Marner meme, and it was glorious:

To his credit, Marner himself joined in:

Is anyone else eager to see what these young stars come up with both on and off the ice during the next, oh, couple decades?

Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

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Ryan Johansen isn’t backing down about his criticisms of the way Ryan Kesler plays. Not after the Nashville Predators eliminated the Anaheim Ducks. Not as he recovers from emergency surgery.

That was the top bulletin-board material from a great interview Johansen participated in with TSN 1040 Vancouver on Wednesday, as the refreshingly candid forward discussed a wide array of topics.

For instance, Johansen:

  • Praised the hockey acumen of Nashville fans, backing up P.K. Subban‘s praise of the market.
  • Went into detail about his harrowing injury. Johansen explained that, at first, the seemingly innocent hit by Josh Manson would just be one of those “that’s going to leave a bad bruise” moments. Toward the end of the game, he was a shift or two from telling Peter Laviolette that he’d be a liability to his team. After the contest, he couldn’t even walk out of the shower, and that’s when medical staff determined that a painful injury required emergency surgery.
  • The bittersweet feelings of seeing his team advance to a Stanley Cup Final without him.
  • He spoke about how confident he felt during a postseason run that’s drawn rave reviews.

Still, the juicy stuff was about Kesler. That comes at around the 10:50 mark of an interview worth listening to in its entirety.

Nice. That’s basically the opposite of Detroit Red Wings players regretting shaking Claude Lemieux’s hand and maybe the other extreme of Martin Brodeur snubbing Sean Avery, right?

(It feels necessary to discuss Milan Lucic getting weird during the handshake lines, too. Ah, memories.)

Johansen admits that he was a Vancouver Canucks fan growing up, and while Kesler wasn’t one of his favorite players, he certainly cheered his endeavors. That … won’t happen again anytime soon, as you can note.

Johansen expects a full recovery from that surgery, so yes, we can all pencil in the rematch between those two Ryans in 2017-18.

Hot take: there won’t be handshakes.