By Josh Dubow (AP Sports Writer)
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — For Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning, just about everything has gone right so far this season.
But as they get ready to return from the All-Star break as the NHL’s top team, the Lightning knows there is little they can do before April to make this a successful campaign.
Tampa Bay leads the league with 76 points so far this season, opening up a 13-point edge over the next best team in the Eastern Conference. But after losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and then in Game 7 of the conference finals in 2016 and ’18, nothing short of winning it all will be enough for the Lightning.
”There’s still some unfinished business,” Stamkos said at All-Star weekend. ”We have a chip on our shoulder. I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be happy to go to a Stanley Cup Final and three of the last four Eastern Conference Finals. That’s tough to do. But with the expectations being so high for our group, we came into this year thinking this was our year, our turn.”
The Lightning thought that also was the case a year ago when they took a 3-2 lead over Washington in the conference final. But they were outscored 7-0 in the next two games and it was the Capitals who ended up winning it all.
Nikita Kucherov, who leads the NHL with 78 points, says it’s simple what needs to be different this time around.
”Just make sure we score goals in Game 6 and 7 and play well defensively,” he said.
There is still much to be decided in the final 10 weeks of the season. There are competitive division races outside of Tampa Bay’s runaway pace in the Atlantic, and 23 of the 31 teams are within five points of a playoff berth.
Even in a place like Edmonton where the Oilers have been in turmoil for much of the season – with coach Todd McLellan getting fired in November and general manager Peter Chiarelli losing his job just before the break – there is still hope for the stretch run.
Star Connor McDavid was grilled on media day about the problems, but he tried to put a positive light on it, pointing out that the team is just three points out of the playoffs despite so much going wrong.
”What I look forward to coming back from the break is trying our best to prove everyone wrong,” he said. ”We have an opportunity here, where things seem pretty down on us, there’s a sense of negativity with the media, with everyone around the team, we get to prove people wrong. We get to decide how we’re going to finish the second half. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
The tightest races are in the Metropolitan Division, where the upstart Islanders are three points ahead of the defending champion Capitals and the Central Division where powerhouses Nashville and Winnipeg are tied with 64 points apiece.
The Jets had won six of seven before dropping the final game before the break, while the Predators broke out of a rough patch of four losses in five games by winning at Colorado and Vegas.
”Obviously the big thing for us is getting guys healthy and trying to get momentum going our way,” Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne said. ”We’ve been a little bit inconsistent the last little while. Before going on the break I felt that we were playing pretty strong hockey and I hope that we can continue that and keep building on that.”
Calgary has built a little more of an edge in the Pacific with a five-point lead over San Jose, but both the Sharks and defending Western Conference champion Golden Knights are poised to push the Flames down the stretch.
The Sharks finished before the break with a thrilling, come-from-behind 7-6 overtime win at Washington and hope the preseason addition of star defenseman Erik Karlsson proves to be the final piece needed to lead the franchise to its first championship.
After a somewhat slow start, Karlsson has been playing at an elite level the past two months, showing why the Sharks coveted him so much. The next big question will be whether they can lock him up with a long-term deal before he can become a free agent this summer.
San Jose can offer Karlsson an eight-year contract – one year longer than anyone else – after the Feb. 25 trade deadline, but Karlsson said he is not worried about that just yet.
”I’m enjoying every moment,” he said. ”I’m not going to speak about the future. I’ve enjoyed every second. We’ve got a great team, and I’m excited for the last 30 games.”