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Three questions facing Tampa Bay Lightning

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 focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

1. Can the Lightning finally avoid the late-season fall-off that has been plaguing them?

There’s an old hockey commercial where Sidney Crosby jumps out of a picture where the Penguins had just lost the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. Dejected, Crosby says, “I never want to be in this picture again,” and then jumps back into the shot.

While there isn’t a specific moment for Tampa Bay, but there’s certainly a big picture to gaze at. The Lightning need to have the same mindset as Sid did. They’ve been to the Cup Final once and the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past four seasons. They’ve held 3-2 series leads in two of the three conference finals and still have nothing to show for it. They’ve failed to score in Game 7s. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov have turned into ghosts when need the most. Secondary scoring dried up. And their defense has failed at the wrong moment.

These seem like small revisions given how talented the team is, but nonetheless, they’re questions that need answers.

[2017-18 review | Under Pressure: Steve Yzerman | Breakthrough: Brayden Point]

2. Can the Lightning find a way to improve their penalty kill? 

They are a team with few glaring faults, but if one needs to be pipped for improvement, it’s the team’s penalty kill.

Sure, scoring a lot of goals can cover a multitude of sins, but in a critical Game 6 against the Capitals in the Eastern Conference Final, it was a power-play goal by T.J. Oshie that proved to be the first and final dagger as the Caps sent it to Game 7 in a shutout win.

Tampa’s penalty kill ranked 28th in the regular season at 76.1 percent and fell to 75 percent in the playoffs. In layman’s terms, if you could goad the Lightning to take four penalties a game, you were almost assured of scoring once. When games are as close as playoff contests can be, every advantage (and disadvantage in Tampa’s case) counts.

They have a solid defensive core, and having Ryan McDonagh for a full season should help improve their PK numbers.

Perhaps staying out of the box a little more could do wonders as well. The Lightning took the third most minor penalties last season and were the 10th highest team in terms of times shorthanded.

3. Will Andrei Vasilevskiy come into this season with more stamina? 

The words you never want to hear from your starting goalie around March when you’re a lock for the playoffs is, “I’m tired.”

Vasilevskiy did utter those words last season.

“Tiredness is something that I probably never faced before,” Vasilevskiy told the Tampa Bay Times. “I mean, 50-plus games. When you play in 20-plus games, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, I’m good, I can play 60-plus.’ But now when I’m on 50-plus, I’m like, ‘That’s tough.’

That fatigue ultimately cost him the Vezina.

His play down the stretch of the regular season dipped and he was rested. The rest did him good, as he was solid in the postseason, but the Lightning need him to be relatively fresh for the 60 or so starts he will make, or at least build in a bit more rest throughout the season.

On the other hand, Vasilevskiy was going through the throes of being a No. 1 for the first time in the NHL and still managed a .931 save percentage in five-on-five situations over the course of the season.

Endurance can be taught and managed. It’s scary to think what Vasilevskiy can do if there’s no fall off physically and mentally.


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

Jeremy Roenick trains to become Golden Knights ‘archer’

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Whenever NBC Sports hits a fun locale, you can expect Jeremy Roenick to embrace opportunities for ridiculous spectacles, and who does ridiculous spectacles better than the Vegas Golden Knights?

JR didn’t disappoint heading into Wednesday’s NBCSN doubleheader, which closes out with the Golden Knights hosting the Anaheim Ducks.

[WATCH LIVE – 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

At the bottom of this post, you’ll see Roenick go marching in, but it’s his “training” as an archer for the Golden Knights’ Medieval Times-style pregame shows that really takes the (cheese)cake.

(Personal highlight, beyond Roenick in archer garb, was an alarmed JR asking: “Commence, does that mean start?”)

Enjoy that affably goofy video in the clip above this post’s headline. Also, you can tune into the first game of that doubleheader (St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks) as we speak.

The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Vegas Golden Knights hosting the Anaheim Ducks at 10:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Capitals need emergency backup with Holtby out

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Facing the Winnipeg Jets with your number two goalie starting and an emergency backup behind him isn’t exactly the ideal scenario, but that’s what the Washington Capitals face tonight.

Hey, things happen during an 82-game season.

Braden Holtby‘s out with an upper-body injury, giving way to wonderfully named Pheonix Copley. (Do you think Pheonix Copley knows Micheal Ferland? They should be best friends, right?)

Copley isn’t just facing the high-powered Jets unexpectedly. He’s also dealing with back-to-back starts, so this could be a real challenge.

The Washington Post’s Isabelle Kurshudyan reports that Holtby’s upper-body injury isn’t believed to be serious, so perhaps Capitals fans can enjoy some of the novelty aspects of this situation?

Of course, the novelty aspects that stand out the most is the guy who was pressed into backup duty out of the blue. That fellow is 6-foot-7 Gavin McHale, 31, who serves as the goalie coach for the University of Manitoba women’s team.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that McHale has been thrust into this sort of role before, so the giant netminder is at least collecting some lightly-worn NHL sweaters and strange memories to share at cocktail parties.

Not having Holtby ranks as “not fun,” but the rest of this could be entertaining. Also: NBC Sports Washington’s J.J. Regan notes that it’s possible that highly touted goalie prospect Ilya Samsonov could end up being called up depending upon how this works out over the next few days, so that could be fun, too.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

WATCH LIVE: Blues visit Blackhawks on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues at 8 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks and Blues find themselves at the bottom of the Central Division eneytering Wednesday’s meeting. Chicago took the first two meetings in overtime, but St. Louis got one back with a 7-3 victory on Oct. 27.

New Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton is still looking for his first win since replacing Joel Quenneville. Chicago is 0-2-1 under Colliton, which has extended their losing streak to eight games. That loss to the Blues was the game that started this current slide. They’ve not had a nine-game losing streak since the 2011-12 NHL season.

“I believe we’re on the right track. I believe we will turn this around. I think we’ve got really good players,” said Colliton. “When things are going against you over a long period of time, it’s not easy to get out of it. The circumstances are what they are. We’ve got to find a way to get it done. We can and we will.”

The dark clouds that were above the Blues earlier this season have brightened as they’ve won four of their last six. During that six-game stretch they’ve sliced their goals against per game from 4 to 2.5. Ryan O'Reilly is also excelling with eight goals and 17 points during a 10-game point streak.

Jake Allen‘s play was a factor in the Blues’ slow start, which opened the door for Chad Johnson, who’s played well in net for the last three games. He’s stopped 86 of the last 90 shots he’s faced and will get his chance to continue to shine during this current three-game road trip. Tonight, however, it’s Allen’s net versus the Blackhawks.

“He’s been our best player. You’ve seen countless times the big saves he’s making that are giving us a chance to win,” O’Reilly said about Johnson. “He’s stood on his head and it’s helped a lot. It’s helped us find our groove and do some good things. We have to be better in front of him, though.”

[WATCH LIVE – 8 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: St. Louis Blues at Chicago Blackhawks
Where: United Center
When: Wednesday, November 14th, 8 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blues-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Jaden Schwartz – Ryan O’Reilly – Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby FabbriTyler BozakAlexander Steen
Zach SanfordRobert ThomasDavid Perron
Patrick MaroonIvan BarbashevOskar Sundqvist

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Vince DunnJordan Schmaltz
Joel EdmundsonJay Bouwmeester

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

BLACKHAWKS
Nick SchmaltzJonathan ToewsPatrick Kane
Brandon SaadArtem AnisimovJohn Hayden
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfDominik Kahun
Chris Kunitz – Luke Johnson – Andreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithBrent Seabrook
Erik GustafssonHenri Jokiharju
Brandon Manning – Gustav Forling

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Injuries exposing Golden Knights’ lack of depth

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We are not even a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 NHL season and it is already clear that things are not going anywhere near as well for the Vegas Golden Knights as they did in their inaugural season.

They enter Wednesday’s game against the Anaheim Ducks (10:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) tied for the second-worst record in the Western Conference, ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings, and have quite a bit of work to do to get themselves back into a playoff position. Regression from a Stanley Cup Final appearance in year one was inevitable, but this might be even more than should have been expected given just how good they looked a year ago.

Goaltending has been a major culprit in the fall, but injuries and a 20-game suspension to one of their top defenders (Nate Schmidt) have also ruined what little depth the team had.

Even last year when Vegas was rolling through the Western Conference it was a very top heavy team that had some question marks after its top line. The complete dominance of the Jonathan MarchessaultWilliam KarlssonReilly Smith line, as well as a career year from Marc-Andre Fleury, helped mask whatever flaws may have existed on the roster.

[Related: Golden Knights look to get back on track on Wednesday Night Hockey]

Keep in mind this team a year ago had a minus-17 goal differential at 5-on-5 when its top line was not on the ice (it plus-24 with the the top line on the ice).

But with those top players coming back, and Erik Haula coming off of a breakout season with his first real look in a significant role, and the offseason additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to hopefully — at least in theory — form what could have been a second dominant scoring line, there was plenty of reason think Vegas could at least be a playoff team once again, if not an actual contender.

Things have quickly gone awry from that plan.

Especially as injuries have mounted and the goaltending has collapsed on itself.

Pacioretty missed four games due to injury earlier this month and has yet to make the expected impact when they acquired him from Montreal for a trade package centered around Tomas Tatar (who has been great in Montreal) and 2017 first-round draft pick Nick Suzuki. As of Wednesday, he has just two points (both goals) in 14 games.

Stastny, their big free agent acquisition, has been sidelined since Oct. 8 and has only played in three games this season. In the words of coach Gerard Gallant on Wednesday, he is “not even close” to returning.

He and Pacioretty have spent just 43 minutes on the ice together this season.

As if that has not been enough, they recently lost Haula — 29 goals a year ago — to an ugly looking injury that required him to be stretchered off the ice and is going to keep him out of the lineup on a month-to-month basis.

Sprinkle in some additional injuries to the likes of Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and Deryk Engelland (who was one of the many pleasant surprises on the team a year ago) and the lineup has been consistently depleted this season.

General manager George McPhee was recently on Fan 590 in Toronto and talked about the situation, saying “we aren’t deep enough yet to not have everybody in.”

Via The Sin Bin.

I’d like to get healthy, for one game. just to see what we are. We just haven’t been. You know we rebuilt our second line and I think they’ve played two and half games together. Stastny’s been out most of the year, Pacioretty was out, Haula’s out, Tuch’s been out. We aren’t deep enough yet to not have everybody in.

If there is any good news on the horizon it’s that Schmidt will be eligible to return from his suspension on Nov. 18, which should give a boost to the defense.

But when it comes to everything else their options may be limited to just simply waiting. And hoping.

They have to wait for Stastny and Schmidt to get back in the lineup.

They have to hope Pacioretty breaks out of this early funk.

They have to hope Fleury’s early struggles are just that — early struggles — and not the beginning of the end for a 34-year-old goalie that just signed a long-term contract extension this summer.

Beyond that, what are the other logical options here? Vegas still has a lot of draft pick capital at its disposal, but at some point there has to be a big picture outlook where it has to remember that even with its year-one success this is still an expansion team building an organization from the ground up. It can not keep shipping away draft picks and prospects and ignoring the future.

All of that salary cap space the Golden Knights had at their disposal in future years has also quickly started to go away with several long-term contracts signed over the past few months (Marchessault, Smith, Fleury, Pacioretty, Tuch, Schmidt, Brayden McNabb, and Colin Miller are all signed through at least the 2022 season, while Stastny is locked in through 2021.  Karlsson will once again be a restricted free agent after this season and is currently doing enough to show he, too, is worth a long-term deal).

Everything went right for Vegas in year one, and it produced an incredible, almost too good to be true story. They are going to need everything to go right the rest of the way this season if they are going to come close to repeating because, so far, everything has worked against them. It all has them facing quite a deficit in the standings.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV 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.