‘Hawks know it’ll be tough to catch Preds, who ‘seem to be winning every game’

37 Comments

The Nashville Predators currently sit atop both the Central Division and NHL standings, and are on pace to win the first divisional championship banner and Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history.

One of the teams chasing Nashville — the Chicago Blackhawks — have acknowledged it’s pretty tough to make up ground.

“It’s difficult to catch (the Predators). They seem to be winning every game,” Brent Seabrook said after Wednesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to Detroit, per the Tribune. “Everything is tightening up and everybody is getting ready for the playoffs.

Nashville heads into Thursday’s action on a six-game winning streak and nine points up on Chicago in the standings — with a game in hand. The Preds are also six points clear of St. Louis, the second-place team in the Central, and six up on Montreal in the overall standings.

What Nashville’s done this season is nothing short of remarkable. The team has yet to suffer anything more than a two-game losing streak and still hasn’t lost consecutive games in regulation (both of the Preds’ two-game skids this year included an OT and shootout loss.) Their .737 points percentage is a franchise-best and, should they maintain it, would have the highest 82-game total since Washington posted a .738 during the 2009-10 campaign.

While the Preds have finished ahead of the ‘Hawks in their division before — most recently in 2011-12 — Chicago has been one of the NHL’s elite teams over the last five years and has a pair of Stanley Cups to show for it. But this year, the ‘Hawks aren’t just looking up at the Preds in the standings; they’re on the verge of accepting that the chase might be over.

“When you play three or four games a week, it’s hard to win those three or four games,” Kris Versteeg said, per the Tribune. “It’s going to be tough, the (Predators) are rolling.”

Lightning had big Stanley Cup heroes beyond Conn Smythe winner Hedman

Leave a comment

If you’re like me, you’re prone to debate just about every Conn Smythe winner. That tradition continued with Victor Hedman winning the Conn Smythe as the Lightning won the 2020 Stanley Cup. And, as usual, you have to be a real nitpicker to actually get mad about Hedman winning it.

Because, again, Hedman ended up playing a huge role in the Lightning’s success, as the stupendous Swede has done for most of his already-impressive career.

Victor Hedman topped all Lighting players in ice time during their 2020 Stanley Cup run, and logged 25:01 time on ice (with an assist) in that clinching Game 6. Hedman flirted with a point-per-game (10 goals, 22 points in 25 games), a rare run for any skater, let alone a defenseman.

So you’re really splitting hairs by arguing against Hedman. With that, (powers up hair-slitting machine).

Other Lightning Conn Smythe possibilities after Hedman wins it

Brayden Point

TSN’s Frank Seravalli revealed that the Conn Smythe voting ended up being very close between Hedman and Brayden Point.

That’s like, “Two bad NFL wild-card teams who both probably shouldn’t make the playoffs, but one has to,” close.

Point scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal on the power play in Game 6, yet another example of the small forwards oversized clutchness.

Point finished with a whopping 14 goals and 33 points in 23 playoff games. If his injury(injuries?) carried over from the Islanders series, it was tough to tell.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Interestingly, Point was killer on the power play against the Stars, but otherwise roasted opponents most at even-strength. He generated 26 out of his 33 points when everything was even. In other words, Point often scored points in the toughest situations.

If I were voting, it would have come down to Point and his partner in crime …

Nikita Kucherov

After leading the NHL regular season in scoring during the 2018-19 season, Kucherov topped all point producers during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kucherov grabbed an assist on that Point Cup-clincher, giving him 34 points in 25 games.

Much like Point, it was fair to wonder how healthy Kucherov was during this run. And it was unhealthy for opponents to wonder how much more damage a full-strength Kucherov might have managed.

(Splitting-hairs machine chimes in: that said, if you’re choosing between Point and Kucherov, Kucherov was more assist-heavy [7 G, 27 A]. He also leaned more on the power play than Point.)

( … Speaking of splitting, maybe Kucherov and Point split some votes?)

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Normally, when a goalie manages a .927 save percentage during a Stanley Cup run, that goalie is the talk of the town. Frankly, Vasilevskiy was on the tips of fewer tongues than Stars goalie Anton Khudobin for most (if not all) of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final.

Granted, Khudobin presented a more entertaining underdog story.

Vasilevskiy is as close to “established” as a goalie can get in the modern NHL. He’s the rare contemporary first-rounder. Vasilevskiy boasts prototypical size, and carries the $9.5M cap hit that makes you merely expect great things.

Yet, if you followed goalies, you realize such performances are far from foregone conclusions.

Beyond winning a Stanley Cup, Vasilevskiy pulled off one of the only things he hadn’t done during this run in Game 6: he earned a shutout. Otherwise, his run was almost completely spotless. During a postseason when teams leaned on both of their goalies to an unusual degree, Vasilevskiy played every minute for the Lightning. And they never stared into the brink of elimination during this entire run.

Conn Smythe voters couldn’t have been blamed for choosing Point, Kucherov, or Vasilevskiy, but Hedman was a fantastic choice, too. This rich list of potential winners underscores the Lightning’s daunting power, and is a quick reference as to how they won the Stanley Cup despite Steven Stamkos being limited to about three minutes of playing time.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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.

Stamkos joins Lightning for Stanley Cup celebration

Leave a comment

After controlling Game 6 against the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. Beyond repeat Stanley Cup champion Patrick Maroon, winning the Stanley Cup was a first for every Lightning player. Considering the road the Lightning traveled to this Stanley Cup victory, should it be surprising that they decided to mix up the celebration, and create a great moment with Steven Stamkos in the process?

As Gary Bettman noted, the Lightning chose to take that group Stanley Cup celebration photo before the trophy was raised.

In an emotional moment, Lightning captain Stamkos ended up on the ice, becoming the first Lightning player to raise the Stanley Cup, prompting a jubilant celebration from teammates. It all makes that lone goal from Game 3 even sweeter for Stamkos.

Great stuff.

Following Stamkos, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman got his chance to raise the Stanley Cup. Some veterans took their laps, while eventually Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and others celebrated with the Stanley Cup.

Along with the players, Jon Cooper and GM Julien BriseBois received a chance to bask in the glory. Both played big roles in the Lightning getting this far (as did former GM Steve Yzerman, now with the Red Wings).

Watch highlights of the Lightning’s 2-0 win against the Stars in Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the video below:

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0 (recap)

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.

Maroon becomes back-to-back Cup winner with Blues, Lightning

Leave a comment

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Patrick Maroon didn’t get the chance this time to lower the Stanley Cup so that his son, Anthony, could kiss it before lifting it again over his shoulders.

Anthony stayed home in the U.S., as did fiancee Francesca as Maroon celebrated with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night as he became a back-to-back NHL champion. A year ago on the ice in Boston, the St. Louis native won the Cup with the Blues, his family by his side.

Maroon had his phone out for the party on the ice in Edmonton after his key steal helped set up the second goal in the 2-0 win that sealed the title.

”Just celebrating with my future wife Francesca and then my family back home,” he explained. ”I thought last year was something else, but this year was something special. I’ve been fortunate enough to be on so many good hockey teams, and to go back to back, most people don’t get the chance to play in a Stanley Cup Finals, I got to do it back to back, and win. I got the chills talking about this.”

According to NHL Stats, Maroon is just the eighth player to win the Cup in back-to-back seasons with different teams and the first since Cory Stillman in 2004 and 2006, sandwiched around the lockout year.

”It’s extremely different,” Maroon said before the final wrapped up, acknowledging the decision for his family not to join him in the bubble. ”It’s kind of been a dream. I’ve been living in a dream, honestly.”

Maroon will be the first player since Claude Lemieux in the 1990s to get his name on the Cup in consecutive years with different teams, and only those two and Stillman have done it since the expansion era began in 1967.

”I’ve been fortunate to play on some really, really good hockey teams,” Maroon said before Game 5. ”I’ve been fortunate to come back to the Stanley Cup Final, even though there’s a lot of guys that play in the league for 10-15 years that only get one opportunity at this thing. I’ve been fortunate to get two whacks at it.

”I’ve been blessed, and without my family and my teammates for all the support, I don’t think it happens.”

If the Blues don’t let Maroon go and the Lightning don’t sign him, maybe none of this happens. Tampa Bay is a different team with him after falling short many years in a row.

Maroon was a late-summer signing a couple of weeks before training camp in the summer of 2019. It was his second consecutive one-year deal, now with his sixth NHL organization, worth $900,000 – roughly half his St. Louis salary.

It has been a perfect fit, even if Maroon hasn’t been as prominent as he was in the Blues’ run, when he scored a series-clinching, double-overtime goal in the second round to eliminate the same Dallas Stars he and the Lightning defeated in the final. But along with trade deadline pickups Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman and free agent signings Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn, Maroon has played a big role in bulking up the Lightning enough to get the job done.

”The M.O. on us and the Lightning over the last few years is that they’re offensive and they’re skilled and the way to beat them is to play them hard,” said Game 4 overtime hero Kevin Shattekirk, also a new addition. ”Things have changed this year.”

Coach Jon Cooper knew Maroon had the potential to change the complexion of the team. He coached Maroon from 2005-07 with Texarkana and St. Louis Bandits of the North American Hockey League, kept in touch over the years and followed his career closely.

Cooper remembers Maroon going from an overweight 17-year-old who had to do extra work to get in shape to a dominant player at that level. Maroon grew into his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame as a player, grew up as a person and became an NHL regular.

In February, Maroon’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer – he told NBC she beat it and was healthy – and he was hoping to bring the Cup home to her.

”You never know when you’re going to come back, so you’ve got to take every opportunity and cherish it,” he said.

Maroon dressed in all 25 Tampa Bay games this postseason, providing some much-needed muscle and filling a vital role in front of the net on the power play.

”He’s a good teammate, and he knows his role, so he knows the minutes he’s going to get,” Cooper said. ”I’d give guys roles and make sure they all know what they are, and he knows his. He’s got character, and he is a character. It’s two good attributes to have.”

Watching Maroon play elsewhere, Cooper often ”sneakily” whispered to former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, ”Hey Steve, if we got the chance.”

It was new GM Julien BriseBois who got the chance and took it, and now they are all Stanley Cup champions.

Lightning win Stanley Cup by smothering Stars in Game 6

Leave a comment

For the second time in franchise history, and the first with this current set of stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.

After the Stars survived elimination by winning Game 5 in double overtime, the Lightning absolutely locked the Stars down in Game 6, winning 2-0 to take the series 4-2.

Following the Lightning putting their own spin on the Stanley Cup celebration, Victor Hedman received the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Lightning win second Stanley Cup in franchise history after beating Stars in Game 6

When contests are as one-sided as Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final was, you can get into chicken-and-the-egg arguments.

How much blame do you put on the Stars for an effort that lacked much energy? The Stars only managed eight shots on goal through the first 40 minutes.

To be fair, there was a late push. The Stars ultimately reached 21 shots on goal when they found some energy down 2-0 in the third, but it was too little, too late.

For Stars fans, this was a painful way to watch a season end for a team that otherwise continuously found ways to dig deep during this surprising playoff run.

But it’s easy to point a finger at the losing team and forget what the winners accomplished.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Top players and supporting cast members shine for Tampa Bay

In knocking out the Blue Jackets, Bruins, and Islanders, the Lightning asserted their ability to handle tough defenses and small margins for error. As explosive as Tampa Bay is, Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final serves as textbook example of how strong a defensive team they can be.

The Lightning didn’t force the Stars to parade to the penalty box, but some key early calls ended up being all the Bolts needed. On their second power-play opportunity, Brayden Point flustered Anton Khudobin with an initial shot, and then cashed in on the rebound.

During the second period, Blake Coleman completed a pretty span of passing and transition hockey. As you may have heard, Coleman grew up as a Stars fan living close to Dallas, so scoring a big goal in the Lightning’s Stanley Cup-clinching game must feel surreal.

You know, especially since it happened close to October.

Redemption for the Lightning in impressive Stanley Cup win

After the heartache and humiliation from being swept by the Blue Jackets, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in remarkably convincing fashion. You won’t see many teams win it all without facing elimination, but the Lightning did just that during this run.

Whenever the 2020-21 season begins, the salary cap will likely force some changes for the Lightning.

Many of the core players should be around, though, and that’s a scary thought for the rest of the NHL. Nikita Kucherov was brilliant with Point and Ondrej Palat. Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s dominance went a bit under the radar because of the many other standpoint performances. And, finally, Victor Hedman asserted himself as possibly the best defenseman in the world.

The Stars likely aren’t happy with their efforts in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, yet it’s impressive that they got this far, including against the juggernaut Lightning.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB wins series 4-2)

Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Lighting 5, Stars 4 [OT] (recap)
Stars 3, Lightning 2 [2OT] (recap)
Lightning 2, Stars 0

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.