Stamkos, Hedman must shake off ugly starts for Lightning

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The emergence of players such as Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde make the Tampa Bay Lightning the sort of varied, versatile team that can be downright intimidating. Still, to some extent, the buck stops with your biggest stars.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, even-strength success hasn’t been there for big names Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman through two shockingly stark losses to the Washington Capitals to open the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. They simply need more from marquee talent if they want to get back into this series.

Now, that’s not to say that these players have accomplished nothing.

Steven struggles at evens

Stamkos’ production looks like business as usual on paper, as he’s already generated two goals and one assist; Hedman has an assist in each contest. Things get more troubling when you dig deeper, however. Consider that all five of their points have come on the power play, a notion that anonymous team officials seem all too aware of.

Now, it would be silly to be excessively worried about where a player’s points are coming from. That’s especially true during the postseason, when it’s so precious and difficult to produce.

Their failings aren’t limited to the simpler box score stats of goals and assists. Take a look at the series possession stats at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see some downright glaring even-strength numbers for Stamkos and Hedman, along with troubling numbers for Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman, and others.

Those rocky possession stats come even though Hedman and Stamkos have largely avoided matching up with the Capitals’ dangerous combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These struggles stand as testaments to the strong play of Lars Eller and the Matt NiskanenDmitry Orlov pairing, but that’s troubling for the Bolts. Watch, for example, Orlov juking Stamkos in a big way before a Jay Beagle goal from Game 1:

It’s to the point that you wonder if Barry Trotz will try to chase similar matchups now that the Capitals get the last change during home contests in Game 3 and 4. There are all sorts of tough questions bubble under the surface for Tampa Bay. Would things only get worse if Nicklas Backstrom manages to play tonight, or at least sometime during this series? Will Andrei Vasilevskiy bounce back from a difficult start that’s clearly not all his fault?

[Lightning face plenty of questions with Game 3 looming]

Aiming for better execution

Reports indicate that the Lightning aren’t making significant personnel changes, whether that means tweaking line combinations or even going with an 11F/7D alignment. As KISS-stupid-simple as it sounds, they realize that they need to perform at a higher level, though it’s promising to see that they’re clearly pouring over tape after two rattling losses.

As Bryan Burns of the Lightning website reports, Stamkos looks at this as a real test after the Lightning breezed through their first two rounds.

“We’re going to prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut check time. Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t really had to deal with that so far in the playoffs. Now we are. We’ll see what type of team we have.”

The East’s top team is facing quiet a challenge against a determined, inspired Metropolitan Division winner in Washington. Pulling this off would put the Lightning in select company in recent history:

While dropping these specific games puts Tampa Bay in a situation with every little room for error, these players are likely aware that, as poorly as they played, it still was just two games. They merely need to look at the other end of the ice to see a Capitals team that fought through virtually the same situation. The Caps went down 2-0 to the Blue Jackets, losing two home games in Washington, only to advance with four wins in a row.

As formidable as Washington is, especially after dispatching the Penguins, it’s also difficult to believe that Hedman, Stamkos, and other key Lightning players don’t have more in them. That said, they don’t exactly have a long time to get things back on track.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

MORE:
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Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.