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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.

All-Rookie, All-Star Teams and rest of 2018 NHL Awards

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Let’s recap the remaining winners from the 2018 NHL Awards. Before we do so, here are the other big winners and corresponding links.

Hart Trophy

Taylor Hall

GM of the Year

George McPhee

Vezina Trophy

Pekka Rinne

Selke Trophy

Anze Kopitar

Jack Adams Award

Gerard Gallant

Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman

Calder Trophy

Mathew Barzal

Bill Masterton Trophy

Brian Boyle

Ted Lindsay

Connor McDavid

Lady Byng

William Karlsson

Also:

P.K. Subban named cover star for “NHL 19.”

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late coach Darcy Haugan (Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award).

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Now, let’s jump into the remaining awards and honors.

Mark Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (see video above this post’s headline)

King Clancy

Daniel and Henrik Sedin

William Jennings

Jonathan Quick with Jack Campbell

Of course, Alex Ovechkin won the Maurice Richard Trophy and Connor McDavid took the Art Ross.

First NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Taylor Hall
Center: Connor McDavid
Right Wing: Nikita Kucherov
Defense: Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman
Goalie: Pekka Rinne

Second NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Claude Giroux
Center: Nathan MacKinnon
Right Wing: Blake Wheeler
Defense: Seth Jones and P.K. Subban
Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

All-Rookie Team

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Brock Boeser, and Mathew Barzal
Defense: Charlie McAvoy and Will Butcher
Goalie: Juuse Saros

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.

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late head coach

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Ten members of the Humboldt Broncos reunited on Wednesday night during the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. The survivors of the April 6 bus crash that killed 16 players and staff were on stage to help give out the first Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award to their late head coach Darcy Haugan.

The award, presented “to an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society,” was voted on by the public after fans submitted candidates, and the field was then narrowed down to three finalists.

From the NHL:

Haugan left a lasting impact in Humboldt, Sask., as well as every other community that was fortunate enough to have him as a resident or involved in junior hockey. He changed the lives of many of his players, always being there for each one of them and never hesitating to give them a second chance. He fought for his team and had their backs – he was the coach and mentor everybody wanted. Haugan believed strongly that the game is not about making hockey players; it is about making amazing human beings. He did just that, building up young leaders who also developed strong hockey skills along the way. His presence would fill the room and his love for the game was undeniable. Haugan died doing what he loved, surrounded by the young people he dedicated his life to. Haugan left behind, in all of those he touched, his spirit and passion for the game, his love for his beautiful family, and his example of dedication to his community.

Haugan’s wife, Christina, accepted the award in his honor.

The other finalists were Debbie Bland of the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League and Neal Henderson of the Fort Dupont Hockey Club.

The NHL Foundation is donating $10,000 in Haugan’s memory to the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association, a charity important to the coach.

On Tuesday, the NHL and NHLPA announced that Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson will bring the Stanley Cup to Humboldt on Aug. 24 that will involve a skills competition at the Broncos’ home rink.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hall beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

GM of the Year George McPhee adds another award for Golden Knights

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George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights continued a big night for the franchise as he was named 2017-18 General Manager of the Year during Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Earlier, Gerard Gallant won the Jack Adams Award for top coach, William Karlsson was named winner of the Lady Byng and captain Deryk Engelland took home the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

The NHL’s 31 GMs and a panel of League executives, print and broadcast media voted on the award following the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Using the NHL’s expansion draft rules to his advantage, McPhee made shrewd deals to add draft picks and impact players while creating the franchise’s first-ever roster. Success came right off the bat and the Golden Knights ended their inaugural season by becoming the first modern-era expansion team from the four major North American professional sports league to win its division. By advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas became the third team in NHL history to win multiple playoff rounds in their first season.

McPhee was presented with the award by actress Lynda Carter and Nicklas Backstrom, the player he drafted in fourth overall 2006 while GM of the Washington Capitals.

Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets and Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning were the other finalists this year.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.