Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos

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.

Fights, hits and a blown kiss: Stars and Blues get nasty

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Things were getting out of hand between the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues on the scoreboard in an eventual 6-1 Blues win.

They were also getting a little raucous on the ice when it was clear that the Stars weren’t going to stage a comeback.

Jamie Benn was whistled for cross-checking Alex Pietrangelo, but it was Stephen Johns‘ hit from behind on Pietrangelo really revved up the violence.

Watch that hit and then the scrum that ensued in the video above, which included a scary display of an angry Ryan Reaves … who got creative at the end.

You may also want the kiss alone, so here it is:

Memo: rough stuff might not work so well against the Blues.

Read about that blowout here.

Blues bombard Stars, go up 2-1 in series

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Sometimes a final score is misleading. In the case of the St. Louis Blues’ 6-1 thrashing of the Dallas Stars, it might just be the start of the story.

Honestly, the most positive thing the Stars can say is “Well, at least it was just one game.”

It was one ugly game, however, and now the Blues hold a 2-1 series lead with a chance to really take control if they can win Game 4 at home.

The Blues dominated just about every category on Tuesday, firing more shots on goal, enjoying better special teams play and throwing more hits. They even blocked a higher number of shots, which often isn’t the case for the squad that carries play.

This leaves the Stars picking up the pieces, especially when it comes to their work in their own end.

Do you put greater blame on struggling goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi or is this more about the Stars’ lax defensive coverage? The scary answer may be “Both,” and the Stars likely know that they need to find answers quickly.

On the bright side for Dallas, it is just one game … and the Blues were searching for answers of their own after Game 1.

We saw the Blues turn things around with these two straight wins, so now the Stars must show that they can gather themselves and play the attacking, out-score-your-mistakes style that got them here.

Granted, they may have to keep an eye out for supplemental discipline after some rough stuff toward the end of the game.

Predators smash Sharks to get back in series

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After a dispiriting 1-0 goal allowed by Pekka Rinne, things were looking bleak for the Nashville Predators for a moment there.

Nashville’s developed into a resilient group, however, and they stormed back for a commanding 4-1 win to shrink San Jose’s series advantage to 2-1.

The Predators saw some of their big names come up huge as the series shifted from San Jose to Nashville.

Pekka Rinne looked sharp following that first goal (and didn’t allow another). Their goals came from James Neal, Colin Wilson, Filip Forsberg and captain Shea Weber.

Weber’s tally was the game-winner, and it was downright thunderous:

Another promising sign: after a struggling to a 2-for-31 clip in previous playoff games, the Predators’ power play went 2-for-5 in Game 3.

Overall, the Predators really couldn’t ask for much more from this win, especially if Colton Sissons is indeed OK after a scary crash into the Sharks’ net.

Things could get really interesting if Nashville manages to “hold serve” with another home win on Thursday.

Stars’ goalie carousel goes around again: Lehtonen replaces Niemi

Dallas Stars goalie Antti Niemi (31) subs in for goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in Dallas. The Stars won 6-5. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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It’s pretty tough not to make jokes about the Dallas Stars spending $10.4 million on their goalies at times like these, even if Dallas’ defense should shoulder plenty of blame.

After Kari Lehtonen was pulled from a Game 2 loss, the St. Louis Blues chased Antti Niemi early in the second period of Game 3 after Niemi allowed three goals on 12 shots.

Troy Brouwer‘s 3-1 goal was enough for Lindy Ruff to give Niemi the hook:

Unfortunately for the Stars, Lehtonen got off to a slow start as well, allowing an immediate Vladimir Tarasenko goal.

The Blues are now 4-1 and the Stars are searching for answers … and probably wishing Tyler Seguin was around to help them out-score their problems.