‘Good luck!’ Lightning carry burden of Presidents’ Trophy

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Jon Cooper and Todd Reirden were coaching at the All-Star Game in January when the topic of winning the Presidents’ Trophy came up.

With Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning cruising toward winning it as the NHL’s best team, he asked the Washington coach how to handle it. Reirden was less than helpful.

”I said: ‘Good luck! I don’t know what you’re talking about,”’ Reirden recalled with a grin.

Finishing at the top of the league comes with expectations, but only two of 13 Presidents’ Trophy winners in the salary cap era have gone on to win the Stanley Cup and none since 2013. If this is the burden to bear for Tampa Bay, the Lightning seem OK with it.

”Nobody in there is sitting there thinking now we’ve got a path to the Stanley Cup finals,” Cooper said. ”As a matter of fact, actually the odds are probably grossly against us just in the sense there’s going to be 15 other teams. Any time you go in somewhere and say, ‘OK, we’re going to pick this team’ and somebody’s got the field, usually the field is the teams to take.”

Taking the field this time means betting against a team that was 21 points clear of anyone else in the league, has the top scorer and likely MVP in Nikita Kucherov, a Vezina Trophy candidate in goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and looks built for this moment. Of course, so did the Nashville Predators last year.

When the Predators clinched the Presidents’ Trophy against the Capitals, who won it the previous two years, winger Filip Forsberg said: ”We’ve seen especially here that the trophy doesn’t mean that much going forward.”

It didn’t, and Nashville lost in the second round to Winnipeg in seven games.

The Capitals have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times in the Alex Ovechkin era – under coach Bruce Boudreau in 2010 and Barry Trotz in 2016 and 2017 (with Reirden as his top assistant) – and lost in the first or second round each time.

”Obviously it comes with a little bit of pressure,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. ”You are the best team in the regular season and you obviously have more work to do I think than just regular season.”

Boudreau, now with Minnesota, said the pressure stems from constant questions players face because ”they can’t away from it” more than a feeling of internal superiority. But nine years after getting beaten by red-hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak and Montreal in the first round, Boudreau vividly remembers a Game 6 feeling of, ”Oh my God, if we lose this game!”

They did. Tampa Bay defenseman Braydon Coburn remembers it clearly because it helped pave the way for his run to the Cup Final with Philadelphia. He and his Lightning teammates are keenly aware of other teams’ missteps in the same spot they find themselves in now.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

”You look to the past,” Coburn said. ”You try to take them as lessons. I don’t think you try to psych yourself out in any sort of way. But I think you look back to that Washington series against Montreal, I remember it very well. It was Halak. He played out of his mind. That’s the thing about playoffs is you never know what’s going to happen.”

What should happen based on 1,271 regular season games is Steven Stamkos raising the Stanley Cup over his head in June. But that was also the case for the San Jose Sharks in 2009 with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in their primes, and they, too, lost in the first round.

”It’s one of those things you can’t let down your guard,” said Marleau, now with Toronto. ”You can’t feel comfortable for a second. It’s a brand new season. Anything can happen. There’s bounces, inches. It’s a game of inches. Just not to take your foot off the gas. If anything, it’s the time to really bear down.”

The Lightning clinched the NHL’s best record with several games left in the season, which takes away some of urgency on the ice – in a bad way.

”We weren’t playing playoff hockey – we were playing high-end, regular-season hockey, which is a big difference,” said Minnesota’s Eric Fehr, who was on that Capitals team in 2010. ”It’s just the intensity of taking the puck to the net and not playing as much on the perimeter and not trying to make fancy plays. You see the high-end teams in the regular season, they’re making fancy plays, they’re scoring 3-on-2 goals. You get to the playoffs and it’s point shots, tips and battles in front of the net. That’s the difference is you have to be playing that style of game come playoff time.”

Tampa Bay was the highest-scoring team in the league, so it’s an adjustment to playoff-style hockey but something the group is used to after reaching the Eastern Conference finals last year. Forward Adam Erne said the ”sour taste” from a seven-game loss to Washington is a motivation, and more experienced teammates are trying to impart some knowledge about what to do next.

”Just keep a present mind frame,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with the New York Rangers in 2015. ”That’ been the best thing with this group all year is we’ve just focused on each day at a time and not look at big picture and what’s going on around us, what’s going on with other teams.”

All well and good, but previous top teams have done the same and not been able to live up to the billing. Carolina captain Justin Williams played on the 2016 and 2017 Capitals Presidents’ Trophy winning teams and acknowledged maybe it played a role in players gripping their sticks a little too tightly in the playoffs.

”It’s really hard to get in and there’s really no clear favorites once you get in,” Williams said. ”But playing the favorite is a little bit different with the expectations for you to win.”

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

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
Getty Images
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.