Andrei Vasilevskiy

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Kucherov, Stamkos and the Bolts are lighting it up

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are off to quite a start in the Eastern Conference, and Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are at the middle of it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that on Monday, the linemates received recognition from the NHL for their efforts, with Kucherov being named the NHL’s second star for last week and Stamkos the first star.

(By the way, remember that column about tempering expectations on Stamkos early in the season? Yeah, about that . . .)

Last week, Kucherov had to endure a brutal one-game scoring slump but did manage to capture five goals and eight points in four games, and is battling with Alex Ovechkin for the league lead in goals with 10. Stamkos, who has most recently had to battle back from knee surgery last season, had 11 points in four games, capped off with a four-point performance and a career milestone against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

“You can’t overlook the fact that 600 points — that’s a lot of points in this league,” said coach Jon Cooper on Monday. “He’s just shy of 600 games right? So, to play that many games and be above a point-per-game player … it’s one thing to do that in 10 games but to do it in 600 games is pretty impressive.”

The Bolts and Toronto Maple Leafs continue to duke it out for not only the highest scoring team in the league right now, but also top spot in the Atlantic Division. The Lightning currently have a three-point lead.

While Kucherov and Stamkos have been a big part of Tampa Bay’s hot start, this club has received healthy contributions throughout their lineup. Their linemate Vladislav Namestnikov has gone about his business with 10 points, which has him tied in that category with Brayden Point.

Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who is still 19 years old and eligible to return to junior, is on the verge of playing his 10th game, but he’s currently Tampa Bay’s most productive blue liner (eight points in nine games), which makes it virtually a guarantee that he’ll remain in the NHL beyond that mark, using up the first year of his entry-level contract.

“There’s a really good chance you’ll see him tomorrow,” said Cooper of Sergachev.

Oh, and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been impressive early on with a .933 save percentage through his eight starts.

Kucherov and Stamkos are obviously worthy of this recognition, and it’s probably not the last time they’ll receive such kudos from the league as this season continues. But the danger this team poses to the opposition goes beyond its stars.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

The Buzzer: Celebrating genius of McDavid, Bergeron, Karlsson

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Player of the Night: Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

Nico Hischier collected two goals and an assist in a blistering effort as the Devils beat the Senators in overtime. Erik Karlsson almost ruined things for New Jersey with three assists. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched an impressive 43-save shutout as the Lightning edged the Blue Jackets. Ben Bishop narrowly kept Clayton Keller and Derek Stepan from even bigger nights, yet each player scored two goals and one assist apiece in a slim Stars win vs. the Coyotes.

Even Bergeron’s teammates made some waves.

There were great choices for player of the night, but ultimately, Bergeron’s return to the Bruins lineup stands tallest. He scored a goal and three assists, soothing injury-bummed Bruins fans as part of Boston’s victory against Vancouver.

Bergeron didn’t ease right in. He won half of his draws, fired six shots on goal, and almost logged 21 minutes of ice time. Maybe he can hold things together for Boston?

Highlight of the Night: Connor McDavid‘s ridiculous assist

This post goes into greater detail on that and Edmonton’s win, so we’ll just stick this GIF in here because you need to see it either way:

OK, but to avoid an overly redundant buzzer, check Hischier here, David Pastrnak‘s great goal, and Mikhail Sergachev‘s big night. And, as a bonus, Will Butcher must have nodded to Karlsson after sending this ridiculous outlet pass:

Outstanding.

You know what? Enjoy Bishop robbing Derek Stepan as a bonus bonus.

Misc.

Click here for Erik Gudbranson‘s hit and fight. Zack Kassian‘s hit on Ryan Hartman is mentioned there, but just in case you missed it, here it is one more time:

Factoids of the night

Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators continued their hot streak by blanking the Flyers. Rinne enjoys a milestone moment:

Two impressive bits regarding how dominant McDavid and Karlsson have been:

Scores and more

Bruins 6, Canucks 3 (more)

Devils 5, Senators 4 [OT] (more)

Islanders 4, Rangers 3 [SO]

Predators 1, Flyers 0

Lightning 2, Blue Jackets 0 (more)

Oilers 2, Blackhawks 1 [OT] (more)

Blues 4, Avalanche 3

Hurricanes 2, Flames 1

Stars 5, Coyotes 4

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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Kucherov’s goal run ends, but he helped Sergachev make history, Bolts win

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Gosh, that Nikita Kucherov is such a slacker.

The underrated, rising star saw his historic, season-opening seven-game goal streak end with eight in seven games. This leaves him just one game short of tying Wayne Gretzky.

It’s fitting, though, that Kucherov made a little history even as his historic run ended. He earned two primary assists on the first two goals of Mikhail Sergachev‘s NHL career, factoring into the Tampa Bay Lightning’s surprisingly low-scoring 2-0 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

(C’mon, you pictured some fireworks there too, didn’t you?)

Here’s the first-ever goal for Sergachev, who matched trade mate Jonathan Drouin‘s two goals with tonight’s outburst.

And here’s the second:

Yeah, you can’t give Sergachev that kind of space and time; then again, maybe the Blue Jackets were a little preoccupied with stopping Kucherov and his red-hot partner-in-crime, Steven Stamkos?

The real star of tonight’s game/reason why it was so low-scoring was probably Andrei Vasilevskiy. Another key Russian for the Lightning, Vasilevskiy stopped all 43 shots for an impressive shutout. This marks his first of the season and only the fifth of what’s been a promising young career.

After falling just short against the New Jersey Devils via a shootout, the Bolts improve to 6-1-1 while winning another early temperature check against Columbus, who are still off to a strong start at 5-2-0.

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Ben Bishop is (quietly) off to promising start for Stars

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Even after winning their last two games by matching 3-1 scores, the Dallas Stars are still off to a modest 3-3-0 start in 2017-18.

Such a record might cause some consternation, and possibly some criticism for the likes of Ken Hitchcock and Ben Bishop. Especially since Hitchcock has developed a reputation for providing the defensive structures that nurture strong numbers from a wide variety of netminders.

You might have missed this in part because Bishop was briefly sidelined by another weird failing of his goalie mask (check out his gross wound here, if that sort of stuff doesn’t turn your stomach).

Bishop is now 3-1-0 with a splendid .944 save percentage and a 1.49 GAA that might elicit fuzzy memories of Marty Turco’s prime for many Stars fans. Bishop’s been sharp since coming back from injury, including stopping 49 of 51 shots on goal during the last two games.

(Things haven’t been going quite as well for Kari Lehtonen, though.)

A valuable confidence-builder

When you look at the 30-year-old’s impressive .919 career save percentage, you might be surprised to learn that many still believe that Bishop has something to prove.

Some of that comes down to taste; NHL teams seek big bodies in net like those of Bishop, but his more “blocking” style leaves many less-than-impressed. There might be a small subset of observers who will pivot from crediting the Lightning’s system for blustering his numbers straight to giving Hitchcock the credit if Bishop continues his strong play.

(Note: Bishop’s almost certain to finish the season with a lower save percentage, unless he enjoys the sort of season we haven’t seen often since Tim Thomas was playing in Claude Julien’s system with vintage Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron hogging the puck.)

The thing is, you can see why the 2016-17 season might have shaken Bishop’s confidence.

For one thing, his numbers were down; his .910 save percentage between his final Lightning days and brief stint with the Kings is the lowest mark he’s sported since a .909 mark in 2011-12 (when he received spot duty with Ottawa).

Beyond the numbers, Bishop was traded by the team he helped lead deep into the postseason. It’s reasonable that Tampa Bay went with a younger goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but much like Marc-Andre Fleury with Pittsburgh, you have to think that the season hurt Bishop’s pride to some degree.

So, yeah, it probably means quite a bit to Bishop to start strong.

Truer tests await

It’s good that Bishop shook off some cobwebs, because the Stars face stormier weather soon. They play one road game, one home game, and then go on a five-game road trip during the next seven contests. With only one back-to-back set, it’s feasible that the Stars will turn to Bishop for the bulk of those challenges.

(For more on the Stars’ schedule, check here.)

***

During an 82-game season, workhorse goalies are going to see peaks and valleys. Right now, Steve Mason is looking like a 1B at best in Winnipeg, but that could very well change. Carey Price probably won’t struggle through November, let alone all of 2017-18.

Ben Bishop will probably face some tough times. Judging by that schedule note above, it might not be long before his confidence is tested.

Still, it’s worth noting that he’s passing his early tests with flying colors.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Lightning vs. Devils; Canadiens vs. Sharks

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Tuesday night. In the early game, the New Jersey Devils host the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

The Lightning are coming off a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night. For the sixth game in a row, Nikita Kucherov managed to find the back of the net (he actually scored twice, including the game-winner).

When injuries were piling up for the Bolts last season, the Russian winger was the guy they relied on to get the job done. This season, that hasn’t changed. The Lightning are healthier than they were a year ago, but he just keeps on rolling.

Another player who’s performed well, is goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The young netminder became the full-time starter when the Lightning traded Ben Bishop to the Kings last season. Although he had some ups and downs last year, he’s been terrific this season.

His individual numbers might not jump off the page (3.00 goals-against-average and a .914 save percentage), but he’s come up with a number of big saves already in 2017-18. Last night’s game against the Wings was no different.

“He’s our starter for a reason,” head coach Jon Cooper said after the win over the Wings, per the Tampa Times. “If you want to win in this league, you have to check and you need your goaltender to bail you out on occasions. And the times we haven’t been checking, Vasy has bailed us out.”

After missing the playoffs last season, many expected the Lightning to be better now. The same can not be said for the Devils, but they’ve been one of the pleasant surprises so far.

New Jersey has a 4-1-0 record and they own a plus-8 goal differential. This young team has really come together early, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re able to keep it together.

Rookies Will Butcher and Jesper Bratt have been nothing short of fantastic in the early going. Butcher, who the Devils signed as a college free agent this summer, has eight assists in five games. Bratt has accumulated six points in five contests, which isn’t bad for a 19-year-old drafted in the sixth round.

“He’s a good player,” forward Drew Stafford said of Butcher, per NJ.com. “You guys are seeing that. Doesn’t really surprise me anymore. He’s a heck of a player, so for him to have the success that he’s had so far — granted, it’s power play — but that’s something I feel like he can ride as far as he can.”

In the late game, the San Jose Sharks host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:00 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

It’s been a tough start to the year for the Canadiens, as they’ve managed to come away with one win in their first five contests.

Despite adding Jonathan Drouin this off-season and having Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and a few others, Montreal is still the only team in the league to has played five games and scored less than 10 goals.

They scored a season-high three goals against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, but they fell 4-3 in overtime thanks to Auston Matthews‘ game-winner.

“I think our guys are focused on what needs to be done internally, inside the dressing room, and what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Claude Julien said, per the Montreal Gazette. “I think so far they’ve done a pretty good job of that. There’s no doubt when you got some guys that are goal-scorers that haven’t scored yet … it’s a normal thing that they might be squeezing the stick a little bit. But that’s what they got to overcome and that’s what we got to try and do and improve our game as we go along here.”

Pacioretty scored a goal in the season opener against Buffalo, but he hasn’t found the back of the net since. Drouin and Galchenyuk both netted their first goals of the season on Saturday night. Three goals in five games from those three players simply isn’t enough.

This will be the first of a three-game road swing in California that never seems to treat the Canadiens well.

Things haven’t been much better for the San Jose Sharks, as they have just one win in four contests.

“It’s on us as players,” Logan Couture said, per the San Jose Mercury News. “If we’re playing well, then the lines aren’t going to change. If we’re not, then they’re going to change them around. How we play will dictate what the lineup is.

“No one’s scoring. You could say our line’s not scoring and we’re not, but no one is. As a team, we’ve got to find ways to create some more offense.”

The Sharks have scored eight goals, like Montreal, but in one less game. Kevin Labanc has three of the eight markers.

If you’re a betting person, you may want to look at the under in this one, but weird things seem to happen when east coast teams go play out west.

Enjoy the hockey!

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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