Getty Images

How Lightning keep coming up just short

12 Comments

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.

Pittsburgh prospect’s incredible Ovechkin-like goal (Video)

QMJHL
Leave a comment

Earlier this week James O’Brien continued our “My Favorite Goal” series with a look back at Alex Ovechkin’s signature goal from his rookie season when he scored that seemingly impossible, sliding goal in Arizona.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Samuel Poulin did his best to try and recreate the finishing portion of that goal in a QMJHL game when he scored on an absolutely bonkers play late in his team’s 6-1 win.

Have a look.

As if the finish wasn’t enough, how about the move in the slot to get around the defender?

Poulin, a forward for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, scored the goal late in the third period of their win over the Cape Breton Eagles. It was Poulin’s 16th goal of the season.

The Penguins selected him in the first round (No. 21 overall) of the 2019 NHL draft as part of a promising draft class that also included Nathan Legare. Those two have been a much-needed boost to a farm system that has been depleted a bit due to trades in recent years to keep the current Stanley Cup window open.

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.

Maple Leafs, Sharks, Golden Knights entering make-or-break stretches

2 Comments

Even though the NHL season is only a quarter of the way through it is not too early for teams to start worrying about playoff seeding, or more importantly, whether or not they will even be able to make the playoffs.

The St. Louis Blues showed last year it’s possible to overcome a slow start, but there’s a far larger sampling of recent history that suggest it’s not very likely. Once the calendar starts to approach the end of November not many teams that are outside of a playoff position tend to climb into one, and the ones that do aren’t more than a couple of points back. We tend to emphasize the stretch run of the regular season as being the most important games, but it’s really difficult to make up lost points from early in the season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three teams that should be Stanley Cup contenders that are facing some really big stretches over the next couple of weeks that could potentially make or break their season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Honestly, it’s time for this team and this coach to do something with all of this talent they have assembled. That is not even to say a Stanley Cup should be the expectation, but they should be capable of more than nothing but third places finishes and Round 1 playoff exits.

So far this season they have done nothing to show that anything with this team will be different.

Here’s the situation they are facing: They have lost three games in a row entering Friday’s game against a Boston team that has ended their season two years in a row, they are in fourth place in the Atlantic Division (sixth place by points percentage), and after playing the Bruins will be heading on a six-game road trip that begins Saturday night in Pittsburgh where they will be starting a backup goalie making his NHL debut. That road trip will also take them through Vegas, Arizona, and Colorado and be the start of a 15-game stretch where they will play 12 games outside of Toronto.

They have struggled on the road this season, still have not solved their defensive issues and do not have the goaltending to mask it. Even worse, they will now be without two key forwards (Mitch Marner and now Alexander Kerfoot) for the next few weeks. That is a pretty big challenge they are facing and if they don’t come out of it successfully things are going to get even more tense in Toronto than they already are.

Vegas Golden Knights

There was reason to believe at the start that this could be the best team in the Western Conference with a talented group of forwards, a solid defense, and a really good starting goalie. But so far pretty much everything about the team has been very ordinary. Their possession and scoring chance numbers paint the picture of a team that has maybe been a little unlucky so far, but they still have their share of issues, especially when it comes to finding another goalie that will not force them to run Marc-Andre Fleury into the ground, an issue that does not seem likely to go away anytime soon.

With only 21 points in 20 games they are on an 86-point pace for the season (that probably would not be anywhere near good enough for the playoffs) and have lost eight of their past 11 games entering the weekend. Some of the teams around them in the Pacific Division have been better than expected so far (specifically Edmonton and Arizona), while it is reasonable to conclude that San Jose and Calgary are going to improve as the season goes on.

If you assume 95 points is the “safe” number to secure a playoff spot, that would require Vegas to earn at least 60 percent of the possible points available to them the rest of the way. It’s a not impossible for this team, but it’s still a big number.

Saturday would be a good time to start making up that ground when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Seven of their next eight games are either against Pacific Division opponents, or teams they are competing directly with for playoff spots in the Western Conference (Dallas, Nashville).

San Jose Sharks

Unlike the other two teams here the Sharks have already started to get their disappointing season back on track, winning five in a row entering the weekend. They are in the middle of a 16-game stretch where 12 games will be played at the Shark tank, and that home cooking has helped them stack some wins together. The offense has been ignited, the goaltending has at least been passable, and they are starting to get some production from their big defense duo of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns.

Of all the contenders that stumbled out of the gate this always seemed to be the one that had the best chance of righting the ship because of the talent they have and the fact a lot of their problems could easily be solved with only one change (goaltending). They are not there yet, but they are on their way and with six of their next nine games on home ice they have a nice opportunity to keep digging out of that early hole.

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.

Flames’ update on Brodie: Tests negative, no timetable for return

1 Comment

The Calgary Flames received a huge scare on Thursday when veteran defenseman T.J. Brodie had to be taken to a hospital after collapsing on the ice and convulsing during practice.

On Friday, the team issued an update on his status.

General manager Brad Treliving said that the initial neurological tests on Brodie have all come back negative so far, while also adding that more tests still need to be done and that no stone will be left unturned in trying to figure out what happened.

Team Doctor Ian Auld also added that so far it looks the incident was more likely related to a fainting episode than anything inside the brain.

“An event like this can be caused by something inside the brain, something scary, and it can also be caused by syncope or fainting episodes. The reasons for why people faint are many,” said Auld, via the Flames’ website. “I don’t think we have all the answers yet and we still have a few more tests to go but all the early indications are that it’s very likely more related to a fainting episode than something significant and inside the brain.”

There is obviously no timeline for Brodie’s return to the lineup at this point.

“We’re going to go through the process of checking every box and make sure we administer every test,” said Treliving. “But he’s come through everything thus far and doing well, feeling good. He’s on the mend. He will obviously not travel with us today as we head to Arizona and Las Vegas. He will stay under the supervision of our medical team led by Ian (Auld).”

The 29-year-old Brodie has spent all 10 years of his career with the Flames after the team drafted him in the fourth round of the 2008 NHL draft.

With him sidelined indefinitely the team has recalled Oliver Kylington from the American Hockey League.

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.

NWHL buoyed over future after adding financial backers

3 Comments

The National Women’s Hockey League announced Thursday it had added enough financial backing after a two-month capital campaign to ensure its viability beyond its fifth season this year.

The league declined to reveal specifics in noting its number of private investors has grown beyond 20 with the addition of insurance and technology entrepreneur Andy Scurto. In 2017, Scurto sold his firm for $160 million.

“This infusion of capital from Andy Scurto and our partners who believe in the power and value of professional women’s hockey is another important milestone for the NWHL, our players, supporters and fans,” NWHL Commissioner and founder Dani Rylan said. “This provides us with long-term viability.”

The league is a little over a month into its season with teams in Boston, Buffalo, New York, Connecticut, Minnesota and New Jersey.

The NWHL was able to add investors despite losing the backing of a majority of the world’s top players in the offseason. In May, more than 200 players – including members of the U.S. and Canadian national teams – pledged not to compete in North America this season following the collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The players formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association to push for establishing a league with what they said needed to have a viable, sustainable economic model.

The Buffalo Sabres relinquished ownership of the NWHL Buffalo Beauts, while the New Jersey Devils ended their agreement with the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters.

In September, Rylan vowed her league wasn’t going anywhere, and added the NWHL was proving it could be viable without the NHL.

The league said the new funding will be directed toward building the league’s infrastructure, enhancing player development and attracting more investors, including team owners. Two months ago, Miles Arnone led a group of investors to purchase the Boston Pride.

Arnone said the focus on infrastructure and adding owners will eventually lead to an increase in player salaries. The NWHL no longer reveals its salary scale, though players can now earn a bump in pay through a newly introduced 50-50 split of sponsorship and media right revenue.

In September, the NWHL announced players had already earned a 26% pay increase based on new agreements reached over the summer.