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How Lightning keep coming up just short

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Let’s have a discussion about the Tampa Bay Lightning, shall we?

On one hand, they have recently been one of the NHL’s most successful teams.

They have reached at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons, and that includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The one year they did not reach the conference final during this run they missed the playoffs by a single point in a year where they were decimated by injuries, including a crushing one to their top player — Steven Stamkos — that sidelined him for almost all of the season.

By any definition this is a wildly successful organization.

They are well run by a smart, innovative front office that has exploited a lot of areas where other teams have had blind spots (the Lightning do not shy away from undersized forwards; they are not afraid to draft players from Russia).

They have one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper, who has won at every single level, winning championships in the USHL and AHL, and then coaching in a Cup Final.

They have great players all over the lineup including two of the top forwards in the league (Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), an elite No. 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman), and a Vezina Trophy finalist (Andrei Vasilevskiy).

They have a steady pipeline of young talent that keeps coming through the system to give them a deep, talented roster.

They are not afraid to go all in and make a big move to add to their roster at the deadline.

They win a lot of games and go deep in the playoffs. There is a lot to be said for all of this.

Yet, even with all of that it still kind of feels like it has all been a somewhat disappointing run because they keep coming up just a little bit short.

Maybe “disappointing” is too strong of a word because it is damn hard to keep consistently reaching the final four every year. As I wrote a few days ago when talking about the Capitals having to once again face their postseason demons, sports is ultimately a story of failure. Championships are hard to come by and even getting within a stone’s throw of one is an incredible challenge. It is not necessarily a failure to lose in the Cup Final or lose in the conference final ever year.

But it still feels like there has been a big opportunity missed here to get a championship.

What makes it seem like such a big missed opportunity for the Lightning is the way they keep falling short in these situations, completely falling apart and going out with a whimper when they seem to be in control of a series.

Let’s start with this year’s loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Capitals.

After falling into an 0-2 series hole by dropping the first two games on home ice, the Lightning roared back with three consecutive wins to seemingly take control of the series, sitting just one win shy of going back to the Final.

They not only failed to get that one win, they failed to score a goal in the two games that followed, losing by a combined score of 7-0. In the process they were completely outplayed, outclassed, and thoroughly dominated by the Capitals in pretty much every phase of the game. Prior to that meltdown the Lightning were 11-4 in this year’s playoffs (8-2 in the first two rounds, including a rather convincing thumping of a really good Boston Bruins team) after finishing the regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. To call it an underwhelming exit based on everything that preceded it would be an understatement.

If that script sounds familiar it’s probably because it is nearly identical to what happened to them in 2016. After winning back-to-back games to take a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning returned home for Game 6 with a chance to clinch what would have been a second consecutive trip to the Cup Final. Instead, they came out on home ice and completely laid an egg, falling behind 3-0 through two periods and putting themselves in a hole they could not dig out of. They were outscored 7-3 in the final two games of that series.

In the 2015 Cup Final, the Lightning won two of the first three games against the Chicago Blackhawks. They then proceeded to score just two goals for the remainder of the series, dropping three games in a row to lose the series.

The common denominator in all of those late series collapses is an offense that just completely vanishes with the season and series on the line. When that happens the focus always shifts to the team’s top players, and in this case that would be Stamkos and Kucherov.

Let’s start with Stamkos, who has now played in six career Game 7s and, well, the numbers are not kind.

Harsh … but fair.

Things are not much better for Kucherov who has zero points and only seven shots on goal in four career Game 7s.

I am not a fan of making big picture judgements about players based on individual games or even individual playoff series’ because there is a lot of times a lot of noise and randomness there, and it’s not like these two players haven’t performed at other times in the playoffs. All playoff games are big games. All playoff games are pressure situations.

Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff career playoff games Kucherov has the second-highest goals per game average in the league, trailing only some guy named Ovechkin.

Stamkos’ overall playoff production drops a bit from his normal regular season numbers, but it is not a huge drop and he is still very productive overall.

But you can not hide from those numbers in Game 7s. They are rough, and if you extend it to potential elimination games (games where either the Lightning are facing elimination or can knock out an opponent) he has just five goals in 20 such games. When the team not only doesn’t win, but also bows out the way they have those numbers are going to be talked about.

The frustrating thing about this there really isn’t anything the Lightning can do about it.

At least, there is nothing they should do about it. This isn’t a situation that calls for drastic changes. This isn’t something that requires an overhaul of the team or its core or the way it operates or the way it plays. The worst thing they can do is overreact and conclude that they are doing something wrong. It is obvious the team is good. The team has shown it is capable of going deep in the playoffs and making a serious run at a championship. When you get to Game 7 of the Conference Final or five or six games deep into the Stanley Cup Final you are often times literally just a single shot, call, or bounce away.

Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it does not.

If there is a lesson to be learned here it should be taken from the Capitals themselves because for years they were the team sitting in the Lightning’s current position (only not quite as good because they were not even going as deep in the playoffs as the Lightning have) of consistently coming up just short in every painful way imaginable no matter how great the team was. The parallels are striking, right down to having one of this generations top goal-scorers. At times the Capitals made some philosophical mistakes in the way they played, and maybe a coaching blunder or two (hello Dale Hunter and Adam Oates era), but they stuck with their superstars. They stuck with the players that kept getting them close and believed that eventually things would go their way.

They finally are going their way.

Until that happens for the Lightning, though, they are going to be stuck facing criticism for not being able to get the job done and missing a big opportunity.

The Capitals are in the process of rewriting their story.

Now the Lightning have replaced them in the “you were so close, how did you lose this?” discussion.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Schedule

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.

Islanders need Varlamov to pick up where Lehner left off

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

When the Islanders needed to roll the dice on a goaltender last season, they decided to hand Robin Lehner a one-year, $1.5 million. The deal couldn’t possibly have worked out any better for them, as Lehner ended up being named one of the three finalists for the Vezina Trophy.

The 28-year-old posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage in 46 appearances with the Isles last season. It was, by far, the best year of his career. Of course, he had quite a bit of help. New head coach Barry Trotz used a defense-first system that limited the opposition’s scoring chances. That’s not to say that Lehner’s season wasn’t impressive though.

The Islanders netmider also helped his team sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unfortunately for them, they were swept in the second round by Carolina Hurricanes. In the end, Lehner finished the postseason with a 4-4 record, a 2.00 goals-against-average and a .936 save percentage.

[MORE: Summary]

As good as he was, Isles general manager Lou Lamoriello wasn’t interested in committing to his goalie long-term. Once free agency opened on July 1st, Lehner signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Isles decided to give Semyon Varlamov a four-year, $20 million contract.

Varlamov’s had his share of struggles over the last few seasons in Colorado. He ended up playing in 49 games last year, but eventually lost his starting job to Philipp Grubauer. The 31-year-old had a 20-19-9 record with a 2.87 goals-against-average and a .909 save percentage last season.

“Even [before last season] when we were looking for goaltenders, he was on the radar for the organization,” Trotz said of Varlamov via NHL.com. “He’s obviously been someone that I think we have a lot of confidence in. With Robin’s [contract] situation, when that didn’t materialize, [Varlamov] was the No. 1 guy that we were going to go after.”

So committing to him for four years is definitely a risky move, but Trotz’s system could help bring out the best in him.

“It’s very hard to play against the teams he’s coaching because of his system,” Varlamov said of Trotz. “Every team playing against a Barry Trotz-coached [team] is going to have a hard time because all the teams he’s coached, they play very well defensively. They play very tight in front of the net.”

There will be plenty of pressure on Varlamov’s shoulders heading into this season. Expectations will be higher for the Islanders this year because they were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference last season. The beauty of Trotz’s system is that he just needs his goaltender to be solid. Most of the time, he doesn’t need his goalie to steal games. Can Varlamov handle that? Can the Isles replicate the success they had last season?

Varlamov is the biggest change the Isles made to their roster this off-season. If they drop off in 2019-20, a good amount of blame will be placed on his shoulders.

The pressure is definitely on the Russian veteran to provide the team with adequate performances between the pipes.

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.

It’s New York Islanders Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Islanders.

2018-19
48-27-7, 103 points (2nd in the Metropolitan Division, 4th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Eliminated in four games in the second round by the Carolina Hurricanes.

IN:
Semyon Varlamov
Jared Coreau

OUT: 
Robin Lehner
Luca Sbisa
Dennis Seidenberg
Valtteri Filppula

RE-SIGNED: 
Tanner Fritz
Jordan Eberle
Tom Kuhnhackl
Anders Lee
Brock Nelson

2018-19 Summary

Did your team lose the captain/best player on the roster? Do you feel like you have no hope? Well if you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, look no further than the 2018-19 Islanders. After John Tavares walked to Toronto in free agency, many predicted that the Isles would be one of the bottom-feeders in the NHL. Instead, they ended up being one of the greatest stories of the year.

The Islanders’ top point-getter last season was sophomore forward Mathew Barzal, who picked up 62 points in 82 contests. They had four players hit the 50-point mark (Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee). They also had just three players surpass the 20-goal mark (Lee, Nelson and Casey Cizikas). Despite those limited offensive numbers, the Islanders found a way to finish second in the Metropolitan Division which, again, no one expected.

How did they do it? Structure, structure and more structure.

Bringing in Barry Trotz as head coach proved to be a wise move for a team without an offensive superstar. Trotz’s defensive-minded approach ended up giving the Isles an identity. They weren’t very fun to watch, but they found a way to get the job done on most nights.

They also found a way to sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs before they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.

Now, the question is whether or not they can do it all over again.

“We know other teams will take us maybe more serious than they did last year,” Lamoriello said, per NHL.com. “But that’s where we have to grow and that’s where our character that I have tremendous confidence in comes through, plus the coaching staff that we have.

“This is the first time that a lot of our players have ever gone through the playoffs, first time they experienced success, and then the lack of success in the second round and how it’s approached. You learn by experience. You never know what experience is until you acquire it.”

The Islanders brought back three core players in Eberle, Lee and Nelson. The biggest change will occur between the pipes, as they let Vezina Trophy nominee Robin Lehner hit free agency. Lehner had the best year of his career, as he posted a 25-13-5 record with a 2.13 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage. Despite those awesome numbers, the organization wasn’t ready to commit to Lehner long term. Clearly, they felt that Trotz’s system helped the veteran netminder succeed (it probably did).

In fairness to the team, no other squad was willing to give Lehner a long-term deal, so he ended signing a one-year, $5 million contract with the Chicago Blackhawks.

With him no longer in the picture, Lamoriello had to sign a new starting goaltender. In the end, they settled on former Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (he inked a four-year, $20 million deal). The 31-year-old has struggled over the last couple of seasons, but playing in Trotz’s system could help revitalize his career like it did for Lehner.

Whether or not he fits in as well as Lehner did remains to be seen.

This whole group proved a lot of people wrong last year. Can they do it again?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

PHT Morning Skate: Top 20 defensemen; Canucks believe in Benning

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• NHL.com breaks down the Top 20 defensemen in the NHL right now. (NHL.com)

• The Hockey News projects ahead to who the Canucks will protect come the 2021 expansion draft. (The Hockey News)

• The fact that the Canucks are extending Jim Benning shows that they believe in his plan. (Sportsnet)

• How can every team’s jersey be improved? (Puck Prose)

• Can Evan Bouchard crack the Oilers’ defense this year? (Edmonton Journal)

Charlie McAvoy continued developing during a big 2018-19 season. (Stanley Cup Chowder)

• How much can the Predators expect from Dante Fabbro? (Predlines)

• Here’s a list of forwards the Vegas Golden Knights could opt to sign late in the summer. (SinBin.Vegas)

• What would the Penguins front office look like without Bill Guerin? (Pensburgh)

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.

Hughes has potential to take Devils to next level

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

Given all the changes in New Jersey this offseason, there’s no shortage of x-factors heading into the 2019-20 campaign.

One could argue, for instance, that P.K. Subban‘s arrival on the blue line is the biggest change of the offseason. I would disagree and a team that gave up as many goals as the Devils did could use a boost on the backend to take the pressure off their goaltending situation, which is suspect at best heading into the season.

But, in this scribe’s opinion, it’s the arrival of Jack Hughes who has the potential to make the biggest difference.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | Under Pressure]

The Devils need offense, plain and simple. Getting by on a leading point-producer who had just 50 points isn’t going to cut it in the NHL these days.

And while a healthy Taylor Hall will make a big difference as well, we know how big the gap can be between himself and the rest of the scoring on the team (see: 2017-18 season.)

With the potential for a breakout season for Nico Hischier — and one not limited by injuries — the addition of P.K. Subban to the power play and Nikita Gusev and Hughes to the forward contingent, the Devils should be miles ahead of their 25th-ranking in goals-for from last season.

And the expectation is Hughes will play a big role in that. He could start the season as the team’s second-line center and depending on usage, could easily hit the 20-goal mark, if not more.

“Jack’s play will determine to us what he can handle and how much,” coach John Hynes told NHL.com. “We’re not going to put pressure on him and we’re not going to put limits on him right away. We continue to put young players in situations they can handle while also challenging them in the right ways where they can have success but also see how they respond outside their comfort zone.”

Hughes does everything so well. His vision, speed and knack for scoring are all welcome additions to the Devils who sorely need more in each of those areas.

The key will be to find him the right linemates in training camp and let some chemistry develop. If it does, an 80-point season may take shape providing he’s healthy.

And, perhaps, a Calder Trophy for his efforts.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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