Dan Girardi

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PROJECTED LINES

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forwards

Vladislav NamestnikovSteven StamkosNikita Kucherov

Ondrej PalatBrayden PointTyler Johnson

Alex KillornYanni GourdeCory Conacher

Chris KunitzCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Defensemen

Victor HedmanJake Dotchin

Mikhail SergachevAnton Stralman

Slater KoekkoekDan Girardi

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

NHL On NBCSN: Lightning, Blues Square Off In Battle Of NHL’s Best

St. Louis Blues

Forwards

Vladimir SobotkaPaul StastnyVladimir Tarasenko

Alexander SteenBrayden SchennDmitrij Jaskin

Ivan Barbashev – Patrik BerglundMagnus Paajarvi

Scottie UpshallOskar SundqvistKyle Brodziak

Defense

Joel EdmundsonColton Parayko

Carl GunnarssonRobert Bortuzzo

Jordan Schmaltz – Vince Dunn

Starting Goalie: Jake Allen

With Tortorella in town for Cup memories, is this best Lightning team since?

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When sports teams milk nostalgia, like the Tampa Bay Lightning did on Saturday by remembering their 2003-04 Stanley Cup run, it often comes with that tinge of sadness that is part of the word’s meaning.

With John Tortorella watching on from the opposing bench of a very good Columbus Blue Jackets squad, the Lightning’s 5-4 shootout win brought about some different feelings tonight. Granted, coughing up a lead made it tenser than the Bolts probably hoped for, yet it also opened the door for Steven Stamkos to collect the shootout-winner.

The Stanley Cup memories and Tortorella’s presence inspire a bold question: is this the best team the Lightning have boasted since that championship run?

Before we dive into that, here’s video of the ceremony:

And a shot of modern players in those slightly-old throwbacks:

The game itself was a thriller, as the Blue Jackets stormed back from a 4-2 deficit to tie things up 4-4, forcing an eventual shootout. Former Tortorella acolyte Dan Girardi delivered a thunderous check on Matt Calvert during the contest:

Remarkably, the Lightning have reached some pretty high marks even though they haven’t sipped from the silver chalice since the season before the NHL went dark. They’ve enjoyed three deep runs since Torts left town:

2010-11: Finished second in their division (103 points), fell to Boston Bruins in Game 7 of a memorable Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins eventually won it all.

2014-15: Finished second in their division (108 points), lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

2015-16: Finished second in their division (97 points), lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final. Penguins won it all.

Those three deep runs are a helpful reminder that there have been some very good Lightning teams, from Guy Boucher’s brief run to a transition away from Martin St. Louis under Jon Cooper’s reign. It’s interesting to note that the eventual champions knocked out the Bolts in all three of those runs, likely inspiring some fun/wistful “What if?” discussions for hardcore fans in Tampa.

Let’s consider a few facets of this Lightning team, which may just be their best since 2003-04:

  • They’re running away with the Atlantic Division so far. As strong as those previous seasons were, the Bolts peaked in the playoffs. Maybe the Lightning can combine strong regular season work and postseason play, much like in those championship days?
  • They have an identity in net. Do not underestimate how well Andrei Vasilevskiy has been so far in 2017-18. The Ben Bishop – Vasi combo was very strong, but there are advantages to having a clear-cut top guy.
  • A deadly duo: Some of the best Lightning teams have deployed some dynamic duos. St. Louis and Stamkos constituted a prolific partnership, yet Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov might be even better. In a fun twist, Stamkos has taken the Marty role early on, as he’s been more of a facilitator to Kucherov.
  • Interesting supporting cast members: In retrospect, the magic of “The Triplets” line may have largely come from Kucherov. Still, there are some nice players who may be able to help generate some points for the Lightning, with Brayden Point seemingly being GM Steve Yzerman’s latest deft discovery.
  • A brilliant, dangerous defenseman: As great as Dan Boyle was, Victor Hedman is truly special. The addition of Mikhail Sergachev may also help the rest of the blueline maintain a solid level of play.

It’s too early to say that the 2017-18 Lightning will rank among the best in team history. Stamkos and Kucherov need to stay healthy and productive. Cold streaks are bound to come.

Even so, nights like these make it tough not to at least think about such comparisons.

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.

Former Ranger Dan Girardi ready for ‘weird’ game against old team

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Dan Girardi spent the first 11 years of his NHL career with the New York Rangers, but that all changed this summer when the team decided to buy out his contract.

For those of us on the outside, the decision was a lot less surprising. Stay-at-home defensemen with big contracts are becoming more and more rare, so the fact that the Rangers wanted to move on from the inflated contract wasn’t exactly shocking for the average hockey fan.

Still, being forced to leave the only team you’ve ever known couldn’t have been easy. Now, he’ll get the chance to suit up against his former team for the first time, on Thursday night.

Most players pretend like this is just another game, but not Girardi, who told NHL.com that Thursday’s game is “still going to be weird” even though it’s being played in Tampa, not New York.

The Lightning have more overall depth than the Rangers, so they’ve been able to use Girardi in a much more limited role than he had been playing with New York in the past. Between 2007-08 and 2015-16, the 33-year-old was averaging over 20 minutes of ice time per game. In his first season with the Bolts, he’s playing just 16:33 per game, which is probably just right for him at this stage of his career.

“Definitely, it’s kind of a different role,” Girardi said. “They want me to still come in and play my game, but I’m not leaned upon to be the top guy. I’m paired with (Braydon) Coburn and we’re still playing some hard minutes against top lines, [but] my job is to be really good defensively and if I can contribute on offense it’s great.”

Obviously, contributing offensively isn’t his forte (he has one assist in 13 games), but he’s been a decent fit with his new squad.

Girardi’s CF% is under 50 percent at 47.6. But considering he isn’t great with the puck on his stick and that he starts in the defensive zone 57.4 percent of the time, those are fair numbers for the veteran. During his final three years in New York, his CF% was 46.3, 41.3 and 44.

For those wondering when Girardi will get a chance to go back to New York for the first time, that’ll come on Mar. 30, 2018.

Add the Rangers’ poor start to list of surprises early this season

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Last October, the New York Rangers were the highest scoring team during the opening month of the 2016-17 season.

Rick Nash was at the time enjoying a resurgence while Jimmy Vesey‘s pro career was off to a fine start, helping New York to a strong record out of the gate.

The Rangers started this new season almost two weeks ago, and so far they’ve experienced the opposite end of the spectrum. Goals have been difficult to come by, with New York having scored only 13 times in six games, and that has hindered their record to just 1-5-0. They’re currently sitting on a three-game losing streak with the Pittsburgh Penguins in town tomorrow night.

The start of a new season always brings about surprises.

Where do we begin?

— The New Jersey Devils are among the higher scoring clubs right now, and being led offensively by two rookies not named Nico Hischier.

— The Vegas Golden Knights have enjoyed the best five-game start for an NHL expansion franchise since 1967-68, with four wins.

— Outside of their season opener, the Edmonton Oilers so far look nothing like the team that shrugged off a lengthy playoff drought and made it to Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

— How many hat tricks have there been now?

You can add the Rangers’ start to the list as well.

Mika Zibanejad, who has been put into the No. 1 center role, has five of the team’s 13 goals so far and only one of his tallies has come at five-on-five. Meanwhile, Nash, the highest paid forward on their roster at $7.8 million this season and a pending unrestricted free agent, has just one goal through six games, albeit with a team-high 25 shots on net. So far, no points for Vesey.

After losing in the second round of the 2017 playoffs, the Rangers made a number of changes to their roster, with Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Oscar Lindberg all being moved through trade, buyout, retirement or the expansion draft. They brought in Kevin Shattenkirk and Anthony DeAngelo, and added diminutive center David Desharnais on a one-year deal, and there is usually an adjustment for new players in a lineup when it comes to the roles they are put into, as well as forward or defensive combinations.

Dating back to their most recent loss on Saturday, head coach Alain Vigneault liked what he saw from his team for just over half the game, but missed opportunities, costly mistakes and an opportunistic Devils team proved too much for the Rangers.

The Rangers are in the midst of a six-game home stand, with seven of the final eight games this month at Madison Square Garden. This was seen as an opportunity for them to gain early ground in the standings, but three straight losses have set them back.

It’s still probably too early to read too much into a poor start or great start for any team or player. It won’t get any easier, though, when the Rangers host the Penguins tomorrow. And another loss would only add to the growing unpleasantness of this early season surprise.

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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.

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Ho-Sang/reason returns to Islanders’ lineup

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One can quibble about a flaw or two in a young player’s game, and NHL coaches certainly seem to focus on those errors, sometimes arguably while giving low-ceiling grinders a pass.*

Such decisions go from “frustrating the nerds” to irritating a wider range of a fan base after losses. Fair or not, that’s the nature of the beast.

So you can bet that there were some New York Islanders fans’ who went from irritated when Josh Ho-Sang was a healthy scratch for their season-opener to irate when the Columbus Blue Jackets dominated the Isles 5-0.

Ho-Sang might not have the same ceiling, but seeing Artemi Panarin dazzle with his creativity likely twisted the knife deeper.

Well, whether an injury to Cal Clutterbuck is the catalyst or not, Ho-Sang is back in the Islanders’ lineup as they take on the Buffalo Sabres tonight.

This is a delight not just for Islanders fanatics, but hockey enthusiasts at large, as Ho-Sang is one of those players who brings a little art to this fast, violent game.

Now, as much as Islanders fans are frustrated with Ho-Sang’s scratch, they can at least find company in such misery.

Really, the Vancouver Canucks scratching Brock Boeser is even more head-scratching than number 66 sitting for the Islanders, as Boeser stands as one of the few players some Vancouver fans look forward to seeing.

There also might be some sadness for Edmonton Oilers fans who wanted another glimpse of Kailer Yamamoto, although Oilers fans don’t have much to complain about these days.

Just looking at the New Jersey Devils running rampant with rookies, you wonder if some NHL teams are giving up precious points by being too afraid to hand the keys over to their more talented (and yes, maybe riskier) players.

The Islanders would be wise to keep Ho-Sang in their mix going forward.

* – As a reminder, Dan Girardi, for all the hustle-love he gets, made this blunder last night.