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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.

The Buzzer: Crawford comes up big for Blackhawks

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Three stars

1. Esa Lindell, Dallas Stars

Lindell scored his second and third goals of the season on Sunday, with the latter being the game-winner as the Stars demolished the New York Islanders 6-2.

This spot could have easily gone to either Alexander Radulov, Tyler Seguin or Jamie Benn, each who came away with three-point nights in the win. Dallas has won two straight and are 6-2-2 in their past 10 games.

Gotta love on the defensemen sometimes though.

2. Corey Crawford, Chicago Blackhawks

Crawford was struggling pretty bad prior to this past week after losing five straight. Since then, Crawford is 2-0-1 and has allowed just two goals in those three games.

Crawford’s recent surge was highlighted on Sunday after he stopped 39 shots on Sunday en route to a 3-1 Blackhawks win against the Minnesota Wild. The Hawks are just 2-5-3 in their past 10, so a better Crawford could go a long way as they try to position themselves in a tough Central Division.

3. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. 

It looks like every game in the Pacific Division is going to have deeper meaning this year with how poor those teams can be at times.

Marchessault, with two goals and an assist, ensured that Vegas got back to winning ways with a three-point night in a 6-3 win against the Edmonton Oilers. Marchessault was riding a three-game pointless streak coming into Sunday.

Other notable performances: 

  • Nathan MacKinnon had two goals and an assist and Mikko Rantanen padded his stats with two more apples and the game-winner on the power play in overtime. That line is just silly.
  • Three-point night in a losing effort for Ducks defenseman Brandon Montour.
  • Leon Draisaitl had a goal and an assist in a losing cause himself.
  • Curtis McElhinney steered aside 33 shots to help the Hurricanes to a 2-1 win.

Highlights of the night

Tremendous:

Slick feed:

Factoids

Scores

Stars 6, Islanders 2

Hurricanes 2, Devils 1

Blackhawks 3, Wild 1

Avalanche 4, Ducks 3 (OT)

Golden Knights 6, Oilers 3


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: Jarnkrok, Atkinson post hat tricks; Karlsson gets first for Sharks

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Three stars

1. Cam Atkinson, Columbus Blue Jackets

Three goals for the hat trick and an assist to cap off a four-point night for Atkinson in a 4-1 win for the Blue Jackets against the Carolina Hurricanes. Not too shabby. Atkinson helped Columbus to its second-best start through 20 games in franchise history. The Blue Jackets have won three in a row and are sitting in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Atkinson is rocking a four-game point streak now with six goals and nine points during that time. He’s currently on pace to eclipse the 40-goal mark, which would be a career-high. He had 35 two years ago.

Atkinson is now tied with Rick Nash for most hat tricks in franchise history at five.

2. Calle Jarnkrok, Nashville Predators

Jarnkork scored quite the hat trick himself on Saturday.

One of his goals came at even strength, another on the power play and one shorthanded. There should be a special name for that, like the hat-hat trick or something (terrible, right?) or maybe the three-phase hatty? I’m striking out.

Whatever ever way you slice it, it was no small feat. Since 2013-14, only seven players — including Jarnkrok — have done it. Not bad for your first hatty.

3. Aaron Dell, San Jose Sharks 

San Jose got a Dell on Saturday night, and it stopped 30 shots for his fourth career shutout in a 4-0 win against the St. L

Not a bad purchase.

Dell exacted a bit of revenge after he was between the pipes on Nov. 9 when the Sharks were blanked by the same Blues team 4-0 on Nov. 9.

Other notable performances:

  • The Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames can both take a bow. What a game.
  • We almost need to create a ‘Mike Hoffman Streak Watch’ section or something like that. Regardless, the man pushed his point streak to 15 games on Saturday with a goal and an assist, extending the franchise record.
  • Carey Price is taking a beating in the media but he’s been solid over his past two games, including stopping 36-of-38 in a 3-2 win.
  • Henrik Lundqvist captured win No. 438 to pass Jacques Plante for seventh on the NHL’s all-time list.
  • Mark Stone had two goals in a 6-4 win for the Ottawa Senators over the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Chris Kreider is a big reason why the New York Rangers are near the top of the Metropolitan Division. He had a three-point night, scoring and adding two assists.
  • Speaking of the Metropolitan, Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30-of-31 and has now won in his past four appearances. His Blue Jackets are in first place.
  • The Buffalo Sabres are good. Rasmus Dahlin is also good and he had a goal and an assist to help the Buffalo Sabres to their fifth straight win.
  • Elias Pettersson scored again, so Vancouver can breathe again.
  • Erik Karlsson finally scored his first of the season in his 21st game, so San Jose can also stop holding its breath.
  • Jaroslav Halak continues to defy anyone and everyone’s expectations. He stopped 31 shots for his seventh win of the season. He’s got a .935 save percentage and a 2.07 goals-against average.

Highlights of the night

Erik Karlsson dropped his first goal with the San Jose Sharks. It was quite the rocket.

Jarnkrok’s hatty:

And Atkinson’s:

Factoids

Scores
Lightning 6, Flyers 5 (OT)
Red Wings 3, Devils 2 (OT)
Sabres 3, Wild 2
Canadiens 3, Canucks 2
Senators 6, Penguins 4
Rangers 4, Panthers 2
Blue Jackets 4, Hurricanes 1
Bruins 2, Coyotes 1
Predators 5, Kings 3
Flames 4, Oilers 2
Sharks 4, Blues 0


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

Saturday’s Battle of Alberta was gloriously epic

Associated Press
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Hate.

At times on Saturday night at the Saddledome in Calgary, it seethed.

And it was glorious. Mightily, brilliantly, glorious.

Saturday night was alright for mayhem and the Battle of Alberta had it in droves.

A great game of hockey bookmarked massive hits, fights and hate. Did I mention hate?

The montage above was just first-period highlights.

Let’s recap:

  • The Leon Drasaitl hit on Matthew Tkachuk knocked the latter out of the game for a while
  • Nurse clearly threw another bomb after the linesmen go in between him Sam Bennett
  • Nurse was telling the linesman to let him and not in those exact words
  • Connor McDavid and Mikael Backlund wrestled

The hit that led to Nurse and Bennett scraping is here:

The hate resumed in the second period, because of course it did.

Milan Lucic was engaged in this game, a sight for sore eyes for Oilers fans.

Here’s a sample of that engagement:

Now, if Lucic can bottle that and take some sips before each game going forward…

Oilers Twitter seemed quite pleased with No. 27 during the game.

Calgary prevailed in the game, winning 4-2 after scoring four unanswered as the Oilers squandered a 2-0 lead.

Neither team started their struggling No. 1 netminders. David Rittich for Calgary was the better of the two backups in the game, stopping three breakaways in the game. Edmonton simply couldn’t douse the Flames, who kept it coming in the third frame when the Oilers started to fizzle out.

Bonus: For old times’ sake, here’s the scrap of all scraps in the Battle of Alberta:

John Tortorella would have been proud.

Let the hype begin for the next game in the famed series on Dec. 9 in Edmonton.


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

Soak it in: Buffalo Sabres are good

Associated Press
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Remember when the Buffalo Sabres were bad?

The answer is we all do. You don’t have to go that far back in the annals of hockey history to find some woefully bad Sabres teams.

But those days of Buffalo being the butt-end of jokes and all of that sort of thing seem to be over with. The western New Yorkers aren’t simply toiling as an embarrassing team anymore. It’s been a bit of a process to turn the ship around, but the fruits of that labor seem to be flourishing so far this season.

Case and point: Buffalo has now cobbled together five straight wins, including triumphs over the Tampa Bay Lightning — tops in the Atlantic Division — and the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild, teams sitting second and third in the Central Division, respectively.

They’ve embraced the grind, have learned to weather storms and are still standing at the end of it.

In Winnipeg on Friday, the Sabres were outshot 12-4 in the first period and survived. In Minnesota on Saturday, they were again pelted in the opening frame, doubled up 18-9 on the shot counter, and still found a way to only be down by a single goal.

And in both games, they battled back in the third, tied the game and then won it late in regulation or in extra hockey, as was the case in Winnipeg. And they did it on back-to-back nights when you’d have forgiven them for packing it in early against Minnesota after Friday’s game, which needed 65 minutes and seven rounds of a shootout.

Summer acquisitions of Jeff Skinner and Carter Hutton have played massive roles in Buffalo’s ascent up the standings a month-and-a-half into the season.

Skinner has 14 goals and 21 points in 20 games this season after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes.

Hutton is 4-0-0 in his past four games with a 1.42 goals-against average and a .950 save percentage.

Linus Ullmark is 4-0-1 in his backup role and Buffalo had the 11th best team save percentage coming into Saturday. 

Their penalty kill is in the top 10

Jason Pominville has turned back the clock with nine goals and 17 points thus far. Thirty-five years old and the wear and tear of 1,000 games? Pfft. Pominville is laughing at Father Time. 

And most importantly, they’re resilient.

“I just think we bent a little bit but we didn’t break,” Sabres head coach Phil Housley said after Friday’s win in Winnipeg. “I think last year we maybe would have broke a little more and gave the game away. We hung in there. That’s what’s great about this group, that they stick with it. We make some adjustments in between periods and they follow through with those adjustments. But it’s great for them, they’ve shown the resiliency up to this point in the season.”

The Sabres are simply an exciting team to watch these days and they’re positioning themselves to be in the playoff hunt, both this year and in the future.

Imagine that.


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