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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

Trocheck hasn’t missed a beat for Panthers

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Vincent Trocheck wasn’t even supposed to be playing for the Florida Panthers this soon, let alone seemingly jumping right back to full-strength, as if his ankle was never fractured.

Heading into Friday, the Panthers were on a seven-game losing streak, facing a weekend that sure looked like it would set the stage for one or two additional losses.

Instead, the Panthers now have back-to-back wins, and they’ve done so against two legitimate NHL contenders.

On Friday, the Panthers beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1. Trocheck assisted on Mike Matheson‘s game-winning goal, posted highly impressive possession stats, three shots on goal, and seven (!) hits.

That would have already been a highly impressive effort for a player coming off a pretty traumatic injury, but Trocheck was arguably even better during Saturday’s 4-2 win against the Nashville Predators.

While his fancy stats were a little choppier, Trocheck showed up on the scoreboard even more, generating a goal and an assist. He looked awfully spry on that goal, by the way:

That breakaway score ended up being the game-winner, actually.

After generating three points in his two games back, Trocheck now has 17 points in 20 games this season.

Now, the Panthers points as a team? They’re now at 46 points in 47 games played, leaving them at least 12 points behind the Penguins (who have 58 points, and could add more against the Golden Knights during a Saturday game that’s in progress). To put things mildly, the odds are stacked high against the Panthers for a credible push toward a berth in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then again, the odds were also against Trocheck returning as soon as mid-January, and he’s instead making a big impact for Florida.

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.

Ref pushing Blues’ Barbashev gives us some comic relief

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In these trying times, sometimes you just need to see a zany mishap where a hockey player loses a skate blade, and hilarity ensues.

OK, that might be highly specific, but such bits of bad luck usually do provide some real comedy. Even by those standards, this was some good stuff, as Blues forward Ivan Barbashev got a boost from an on-ice official, and it was quite a boost down the ice.

You can watch that moment in the video above this post’s headline, and likely have a nice chuckle.

The Blues ended up beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Saturday, so Barbashev & Co. can share a bigger laugh after the game.

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Speaking of comic relief and needing a push, enjoy the Zamboni from Saturday’s Oilers game:

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.

Bruins’ Rask helped off ice after huge collision

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Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask needed help off of the ice – and took quite a while to leave the ice – after a frightening collision with New York Rangers forward Filip Chytil.

Moments after this post went up on Saturday, the Bruins provided an unsettling – if, sadly, not surprising – update that Rask suffered a concussion and will not return to the game.

You can see the collision (and get an idea of how long it took Rask to leave the ice) in the video above this post’s headline.

This is the Bruins’ final game before the All-Star break, and they won’t play again until they host the Winnipeg Jets in Boston on Jan. 29, so at least there isn’t much pressure for Rask to rush back to action too soon.

Rask began the game tied with Tiny Thompson at 252 wins, the most in Bruins’ franchise history.

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.

Erik Karlsson misses Sharks game on Saturday

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Considering how much Erik Karlsson has been heating up along with the San Jose Sharks lately, it would have been fun to see him skate against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that once tried to acquire him.

That’s not happening on Saturday, as Karlsson was a late scratch for the game.

The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz reports that Karlsson was “limping noticeably” and favoring his left side following the Sharks’ 6-3 loss to the Coyotes on Wednesday. Kurz also reports that Karlsson hasn’t participated in practice or pregame skates for about a week.

Paul Gackle of the Mercury News points out that Karlsson was held out for most of the third period of Tuesday’s 5-2 win against the Penguins for “precautionary reasons,” yet Sharks coach Peter DeBoer indicated that the 28-year-old was expected to play on Saturday. Instead, Karlsson must have determined that he wasn’t good to go after skating a bit during warm-ups.

Saturday’s game against the Lightning marks the second of a four-game road trip. The Sharks are set to play against the Panthers in Florida on Monday (Jan. 21) and the Capitals in Washington on Tuesday (Jan. 22), then they’ll be off for the All-Star break.

Karlsson was one of the Sharks’ three selections to the 2019 NHL All-Star Game, but we’ll see if what seems like a lower-body injury ends up sidelining him from the event. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Swede miss at least one of the Sharks’ remaining two games before the break, considering that it’s a back-to-back set.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic is also out with an injury, so the Sharks are limping – can Sharks limp? – a bit into that run of off time.

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.