Schedule helps Lightning keep focus after Presidents’ Trophy

By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

While the bulk of contenders duke it out to secure playoff spots, the Tampa Bay Lightning sit comfortably atop the NHL with nothing left to play for.

The Lightning clinched the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs with nine games left in the regular season. With no blueprint for how to play hockey games that don’t matter, they’re glad that eight of their final nine games come against teams currently in playoff position and turning this into a dress rehearsal for what could be a long run.

”It helps with the teams that we have left on the schedule,” forward Adam Erne said. ”They’re all going to be playoff-like games, and I think we have a playoff mentality and we know that we can’t just flip a switch once playoffs start. We want to prepare ourselves for the first round.”

Tampa Bay is already 2-1-0 since clinching, faces Boston on Monday and in the season finale and has games left against Washington, Montreal and Toronto. There’s very little of the unpredictability of what to expect from opponents playing out the string – save for a game at cellar-dwelling Ottawa – and plenty of meaningful games to keep the Lightning from getting complacent.

This is the first Presidents’ Trophy in Lightning history, so when he was asked how to handle clinching so early, coach Jon Cooper quipped, ”I guess we’re going to find that out.”

Cooper already should be in contention for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year, but he shouldn’t have to do too much motivating considering the Canadiens, Bruins or Maple Leafs and Capitals could reasonably make up his team’s path to the Stanley Cup Final.

”A lot of times the opponent brings it out in you,” Cooper said. ”A lot of these teams will pull the best out of you, and we’ve just got to be ready for it.”

Captain Steven Stamkos acknowledged it’s impossible to replicate playoff emotion in the regular season but said ”there’s still some things that we want to accomplish.”

Still possible is the single-season wins record of 62 set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings – before the addition of shootouts and elimination of tie games – and the Lightning would have to win four of their final six just to tie.

MVP candidate Nikita Kucherov should finish first in points by a lot, but he’s also seven shy of Alexander Mogilny’s single-season record for a Russian player. Countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in victories by a goaltender and is also making a case to win the first Vezina Trophy of his career.

There’s a lot of guys having great seasons individually and as a team we’re having a great season,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ”We want to see how well we can finish, too, and there’s a lot of pride in that. … Collectively as a team I think we’ve set ourselves up obviously for a great opportunity and we’re trying to understand that and really just try and gain some confidence here.”

More than anything, the Lightning don’t want to lose a step that could be costly in the playoffs. Cooper is unsure if he’ll rest any players down the stretch, and Stamkos doesn’t expect that at least until the final couple of games.

The fact that most of these games will matter to opponents could affect Cooper’s decisions, too. But he and Tampa Bay’s focus is on getting 16 victories to win the franchise’s first title since 2004 and there doesn’t seem to be any lack of focus on that end goal with six games left in the regular season.

”You want to make sure that you’re not giving any gimme games while you’re trying to rev up your engine again for the playoffs,” defenseman Braydon Coburn said. ”You don’t want to be the team that’s limping in the playoffs just because you had a good record.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Sharks eliminate Golden Knights in unforgettable Game 7

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If someone ever snickered at you for claiming that anything can happen in the hockey playoffs, merely direct them to Game 7 of the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks.

At the tailend of a thrilling overtime period (did these two teams really just play a double-OT Game 6?), Barclay Goodrow became the unlikely series-clincher in one of the least likely Game 7 comebacks you’ll ever see. The Sharks advance to Round 2 and a matchup against the Colorado Avalanche after beating the Golden Knights 5-4 in OT. San Jose wins the series 4-3.

But they had to do that after falling behind 3-1 in the series, and carving their way out of a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. It’s the sort of game hockey lovers will pour over for ages, and fans of both teams are unlikely to forget.

All things considered, that unlikely Goodrow goal seems fitting.

How we got to overtime, against all odds

On the strength of great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, a Cody Eakin goal that required a review for a high-stick, and a groaner of a 3-0 goal for Max Pacioretty, it sure looked like the Golden Knights were going to skate away with Game 7. Then Eakin became a much bigger story than the fellow who scored what seemed, at the time, like a big goal.

In a scary moment, Eakin hit Joe Pavelski, who hit the ice in an extremely scary way. Fair or not, the officials ejected Eakin from Game 7, whistling him for a game-changing major penalty.

The Sharks went on to score an absurd four goals on the power play, flipping a 3-0 deficit to a 4-3 Sharks lead. With less than seven minutes remaining in the third period, the Golden Knights had to come to grips with the first lead change of this series.

The Golden Knights failed to score on a power-play opportunity of their own, but Jonathan Marchessault delivered after Vegas showed serious resiliency in trying to come back, and a stunning Game 7 went to overtime.

And the rest is … well, NHL history, and the Sharks will turn to a Round 2 series against the Avalanche. Credit the Golden Knights for forcing this contest to OT, but they couldn’t win it, and now their fans get a taste of something other hockey fans – particularly those of the Sharks – know all too well: the feeling of shock, and also, feeling like they were on the wrong end of the refs’ whistles.

What a game, what a comeback, and what a series.

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.

Pavelski hurt, Eakin ejected, Sharks steal lead on huge Game 7 power play

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At one point, the crowd in San Jose was “you can hear a pin drop” quiet in Game 7, as the Golden Knights built what looked like a suffocating 3-0 lead. Fittingly in a back-and-forth series and a generally wild Round 1, the hockey world should have expected the unexpected.

Update: Then more unexpected happened in Game 7, as the Golden Knights kept pushing after the Sharks built that unlikely 4-3 lead, with Vegas scoring a 4-4 goal to send it to OT. You can watch that game on NBCSN, and also stream it here:

[WATCH LIVE]

In a startling series of events:

  • Joe Pavelski was hurt, possibly badly, on an awkward-looking hit, which drew a five-minute major penalty on Cody Eakin. Video will be added soon, but here it is in GIF form:
  • That was a frightening sight, and the officials responded by ejecting Eakin and charging him with a major penalty. This came after the Sharks began Game 7 going 0-for-4 on the power play.
  • The Sharks took advantage of that five-minute major, and the fact that it doesn’t end when you score a power-play goal. San Jose scored a ridiculous four goals on that major penalty to take a stunning lead.

Here are the goals in video form:

Was this the right call, or did Eakin draw a major penalty because of the optics of Pavelski’s scary injury? That’s a debate that could linger, but the bottom line is that the Sharks are now, somehow, up 4-3 with little time remaining in the third period.

PHT will monitor updates on Pavelski’s condition.

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.

In a series full of questions, Maple Leafs’ Babcock short on answers

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Mike Babcock has done a lot of good things as head coach in the National Hockey League and elsewhere. But coaching the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs won’t be something that he has a long chat with his grandkids about one day.

A second Game 7 loss in as many years against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night only added to Babcock’s (perhaps notorious) inability to push Toronto into the deep waters of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’s now 8-12 as a bench boss in the postseason in Toronto and it might have been his worst in terms of decision-making.

How does Auston Matthews play just 15:18 of five-on-five time (18:48 total) in a game where the Bruins led 2-0 after the first period?

How does William Nylander, who finished with 12:55 in the game, not get linked back up with Matthews earlier than midway or so through the third? Why was he hobbled by his linemates?

Why did John Tavares not play in the mid-20s? The guy had 47 goals and was signed for a massive contract for his potential in these situations, right?

Why weren’t lines consolidated sooner so that the young, skilled superstars on the team could go out there and give it their best go?

Why was Patrick Marleau afforded 1:40 of power-play time when his record with the man-advantage was this poor? Why was he playing meaningful minutes in the third when the bench could have been shortened (and should have been) much sooner?

What would Sheldon Keefe do?

How long with this be allowed to go on?

No doubt, that last question is going to be hotly debated over coming days and weeks. Babcock is a great coach with aging ideas that aren’t working when they need to with a youthful lineup.

Never mind their now-52-year Stanley Cup drought — it’s been 15 years since they won a series.

Maybe Babcock has taken the team as far as they can go.

Nazem Kadri has lost his head twice now in the past two playoffs, throwing a massive wrench into the mix. Kadri, when calm, is effective and he showed that prior to losing his cool in Game 2. But getting suspended for the remainder of the series was as about selfish as it gets.

Babcock told the media in Boston after the name that not having Kadri impacted Nylander’s minutes.

That’s a bit of a stretch, however. And it reeks of unimaginative thinking, something that might cost Babcock his job.

Because when you’re staring elimination in the face, playing your eldest players over your younger, more skilled crop just doesn’t produce the same yield it once did.

Matthews et al needed to be playing. The talent suggests it. The investment made in these players suggests it.

Why doesn’t the head coach?


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

Bruins win yet another Game 7 against Maple Leafs

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You could say that history repeated itself as the Bruins once again won a Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, taking this one 5-1.

After all, Maple Leafs fans will suffer through a similar, empty feeling. Their rivals dispatched them from yet another first-round series, and with a cap crunch coming for Toronto, the heartache is real.

And, yes, Jake Gardiner‘s Game 7 nightmares continued. There his blinking, sad face was, as the Bruins stormed off to a 2-0 lead, with both goals coming while Gardiner was on the ice.

Yet, while the 2013 and 2018 Game 7 matchups featured rather epic Maple Leafs meltdown that almost felt Shakespearean, this contest carried a heavier air of inevitability. Yes, the Maple Leafs made a game of it by sanding down a 2-0 deficit to 2-1 through the second period, but Sean Kuraly‘s 3-1 goal minutes into the third really sapped much of the drama from 2019’s Game 7.

(A failed power play by Toronto minutes after Kuraly’s goal really hammered that point home.)

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Unlike in the previous Game 7 contests with Toronto, the Bruins never trailed this time around. You’d think that the Bruins’ lethal top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak would have been doing the heavy lifting, but instead it was Boston’s supporting cast members. (Tuukka Rask played a big role in the lack of drama, by the way, as the Finnish goalie made 32 out of 33 saves.)

  • Marcus Johansson took advantage of sloppy defensive work to score what has to be one of the biggest goals of his career.
  • John Tavares gave the Maple Leafs some life with his goal, but generally Toronto couldn’t really get its top guns going, particularly once the Bruins were able to get in cruise control defensively. (Bold prediction: New York Islanders fans will make a few jokes about their team making it further than Tavares this year.)
  • That Sean Kuraly goal came on what seemed like an innocuous play, and you could practically feel the shock and dismay when the Maple Leafs bench was shown reacting to it. Two empty-net goals added a couple extra pinches of salt in the wounds for Toronto.

With another gutting loss against the Bruins in mind, the Maple Leafs have a lot of soul-searching to do.

Andersen was mostly pretty strong in Round 1, but this hurts — really, really, badly. Again, top stars like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner couldn’t make a mark in Game 7 after gaining some traction midway through Round 1.

And, honestly? It’s fair to wonder how much blame Mike Babcock should carry. Was he too stubborn in not experimenting with different combinations, whether it was trying out Matthews with Marner more often, or giving the higher lines an injection of higher-end talent by moving William Nylander higher up the order? And did the Maple Leafs lack adjustments in the finer points of the game, such as sticking to their tendency to look for stretch passes too often?

[More on Babcock’s coaching job, and the decisions he made.]

Of course, while many – particularly those in the Toronto media – will focus negative attention on the Maple Leafs, you don’t really struggle unless your opponent is playing at a high level.

The Bruins posed a mighty threat to the Maple Leafs all along, so it’s not really that surprising that Boston came through. They’re a very, very good team, particularly when they’re getting offense from players other than that big three of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak.

Boston moves on to an intriguing Round 2 matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets. It will be a series of many storylines, including rest versus rust, as the Bruins just went the distance against the Maple Leafs while Columbus kicked back and relaxed following that shocking sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s not the series many were expecting, yet both the Bruins and Blue Jackets have been playing at a high level, so it should be a fascinating time.

Maybe John Tortorella will even give us a few more golden quotes?

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.