Lightning need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6

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WASHINGTON — For the third time in four years the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves facing one of the ultimate situations in the sport.

A Game 7 in the Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

It is obviously a familiar situation for most of the core group as 11 players on the roster, as well as head coach Jon Cooper, have been in place for all three of these recent runs. They split the previous two Game 7s, beating the New York Rangers in 2015 on their way to a Final showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks, and losing a one-goal nail-biter in 2016 against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now they find themselves in a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after dropping Game 6 in Washington on Monday night. It was a brutally physical, electrifying game that saw Capitals goalie Braden Holtby pitch his first shutout of the season and the Lightning find themselves trying to chase a more desperate team for much of the night.

[Related: Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most]

It was probably a disappointing effort on the part of the Lightning after winning three consecutive games to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. To be fair, it is awfully difficult to beat any team four games in a row, especially when you get to this point in the season when only the best of the best are still left standing. But anytime you have a chance to finish a team and deliver a knockout punch you want to take advantage of that. Sometimes you can’t control the result. Sometimes no matter how well you play things are not going to go your way on the scoreboard. Stuff happens. But you can control the way you play and the latter part was a big part of Cooper’s post-game presser on Monday night, as well as the situation it leaves them in.

“We didn’t play with near the desperation they did,” said Cooper. “Was it a fairly even game? There is no question. But what were the hits, 39-19? Somebody was engaged and somebody was not. That is a choice, and you can spin this anyway you want. You can say, ‘well good for Tampa they were down 0-2 and they pushed this to a Game 7.’ Or you could say ‘wow they blew a big opportunity to close this series out.’

“In the end there is a Game 7,” he continued. “It is at home. If you said to me you just have to go 2-2 at home in this series and you are going to win it, we will take that. We won two on the road, now we have to go home and make sure we take care of business there. Shame on us if we don’t.”

While home ice is all well and good, it isn’t necessarily something that has been a huge advantage in these playoffs, and especially not in this series where each team to this point has lost two of the three games in their own building.

“I think if you look at the statistics in these playoffs, pretty sure the playoffs the road team has won more than the home team,” said Cooper, who was correct in his assessment of playoff records, where the road teams own a 41-37 mark.

“You have an advantage of home. you get to squeak your matches a little better, there is face-offs, there is 20,000 people pulling for you. If you’re going to give me a game, and I have no idea what the results are going to be, but if you’re going to give me a game I’d rather play it at home than on the road. They earned that during the regular season and now we need it. Now we need to use it to our advantage.”

Still, the question remains as to why the Lightning, the top team in the Eastern Conference that had just pulled off three wins in a row, played so flat at times in a potential close out game. Cooper was asked on Monday night if he thought his team was maybe relying too much on the fact it knew it had Game 7 sitting in its back pocket and thus didn’t have the same urgency as the Capitals.

“I don’t know, is that human nature? Who knows,” said Cooper. “I guess in the back of your mind you know it’s going to be there. But did our guys try and win a hockey game? They did.”

He continued: “But with this time of year with only three teams left with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup your urgency level, your determination level, they have to make you so uncomfortable, that is what pushes you through. There were times we played like that, there were times we didn’t. It’s so hard to win and this group has been through these games before. Maybe winning three in a row and clawing back into this series, we were on life support, maybe it’s taken its toll on us. Maybe we exhaled a little bit. But I will tell you one thing, I’ve been so proud to coach this group over the past five years, every time they have been pushed against the wall, they have pushed back. It has been awesome to coach them, we are being pushed again, and now it is time to push back.”

These two teams are very similar in a lot of ways, so it’s probably kind of fitting that they find themselves in this situation where one game decides who moves on.

They each have one of the top-two goal-scorers from this generation in Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), both of whom are still searching for their first Stanley Cup ring.

While the Tampa Bay organization has won the Stanley Cup once in its existence (and been back to the Final within the past four years) this particular core — which is an outstanding one! — still hasn’t done it. They, too, have been painfully close only to have it fall just out of reach. After losing the Final to Chicago in 2015, they came back the previous season and let a 3-2 series lead slip away against Pittsburgh after missing an opportunity to close out the series on home ice. They had a 3-2 series lead this time around, missed an opportunity to close it out again with a game that probably was not their best effort, and now find themselves in another Game 7 with a trip to the Final on the line.

Both teams have a ton of pressure to come through and break through the glass ceiling that has been sitting above them. It should make for an outstanding game on Wednesday night.

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

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

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It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals’ Ovechkin to play Wednesday, sit first game after all-star break

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Alex Ovechkin will serve his punishment for missing the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in the Washington Capitals first game back after the break.

Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is choosing to play instead as the Capitals look to end a six-game losing streak before an extended weekend off.

Ovi will now miss the team’s Feb. 1 meeting with the Calgary Flames.

The move appears to be purely based on where the Capitals are at the moment, and that’s in a rut. The six-game losing streak has a seen them fall out of first place with just three wins in their past 10 games.

Despite the back-to-back nature of Wednesday’s game — the Caps blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday — Ovechkin and the Caps will host a Toronto team that’s lost three straight and seven out of their past 10. The game, then, is a better opportunity to snap the winless skid. There isn’t a team hotter than the Calgary Flames, so it makes sense.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Hertl, Ovechkin trade hat tricks in 13-goal game

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Three stars

1. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

In a game that featured 13 goals and two hat tricks, it was Hertl’s night that stood out amongst his peers.

Hertl scored one of the hat tricks and added an assist for his four-point night. Hertl was instrumental in the third period, scoring the goal to bring the Sharks to 6-5 and then assisting on Evander Kane‘s second of the game with one second left in the third period to send it to overtime.

In the extra hockey portion, Hertl finished the hat trick, scoring the game-winner at 1:48. It’s his second hat trick of the season, and second this month.

The Sharks won 7-6.

Here are the highlights:

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

It’s almost as if Ovechkin dangles the thought of someone catching him in the goal-scoring race, only to separate himself every time someone gets close. He’s just playing with those chasing him down.

Ovechkin notched another hat trick on Tuesday, scoring goals No. 34 thru 36 in the Capitals sixth straight loss. That’s 23 career hat tricks for Ovi, which are broken down here:

3. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings will head into their mandated week off on a high (and not in last place in the NHL) after Glendening scored a brace in a 3-2 win over the embattled Edmonton Oilers.

His first of the game came as he slipped in behind the Oilers defense and tapped in a shot past Mikko Koskinen. His second, the game-winner, came on a nice move to the net, slipping the puck past Koskinen.

Highlights of the night

The Hands of Kane:

Talk about cutting it close:

Factoids

Scores

Sharks 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Coyotes 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 2 (SO)
Flames 3, Hurricanes 2 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Oilers 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

New contract, same result as Koskinen, Oilers fall to Red Wings

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A shiny new $4.5 million contract couldn’t help Mikko Koskinen stop the puck any better, nor could it help the Edmonton Oilers outscore their opponent on Tuesday night.

A day after the most puzzling contract extension in a long time, Koskinen allowed a couple softies to the basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings as the Oilers lost 3-2 in another miserable effort on NBSCN.

All eyes were on Koskinen and the Oilers after Monday’s developments. After 40 minutes on Tuesday, Oilers fans were booing their team off the ice. Not a good sign, but perhaps not one that was all that surprising or unfamiliar.

Allowing goals like this was a big part of the problem for the Oilers, and Koskinen — despite the big-money deal — hasn’t been preventing too many of them lately.

Just listen to Ray Ferraro’s reaction on this one:

Koskinen actually made a couple of quality saves in the game, but then there was this sort of thing where he just chucked sound goalie positioning out the window.

After two periods, it was so bad that NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick put the Oilers on blast.

“I’m just sitting here watching this game and shaking my head,” Roenick said. “I’m boggled that this is a professional hockey league team. The Edmonton Oilers are so bad. They can’t put two passes together. Their passing decisions. Their positioning defensively. They look, in all three zones, they looked confused. They have no idea where they are going. They are throwing hope-for passes up the ice hoping that they catch somebody in a rush where they can get an out-numbered situation. They might have good skaters, fast skaters, but their feet and their hands go so much faster than their brains. They have no idea what they are doing out there and it shows so much.

“You’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, and God bless them, the worst team in the National Hockey League by points [with] 43, and they look like the Stanley Cup champions compared to this Edmonton Oilers team. I can understand why Connor McDavid is as frustrated as he is. He’s on the only guy that’s working, the only guy doing something smart with the puck.

“We talk about hockey IQ, and some players with great hockey IQ. This team might have, from 18 players, the lowest hockey IQ I’ve seen in a long time, the way they’re playing this game. It’s embarrassing. I can understand why there were boos for this team going off the ice after the second period. It’s just awful to watch.”

The Oilers responded, scoring twice in the third period, including this one from Leon Draisaitl to give fans some hope.

It wouldn’t be enough, however.

Jimmy Howard continued his dominance against the Oilers, now 14-2-0 in his past 16 starts against Edmonton after making 32 saves.

Koskinen finished with 24 saves on 27 shots for another sub-.900 save percentage outing — his third straight. Koskinen has a .910 save percentage on the year and is .905 in his brief NHL career.

The Red Wings moved out of the NHL’s basement with the win while the Oilers lost their third straight and sixth in their past 10. The crazy thing is Edmonton is just three points back of a playoff spot as of Tuesday night.

The saga continues…


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck