‘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

NHL on NBCSN: Year after elevating Berube, Blues’ success continues

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

One year ago Tuesday, the St. Louis Blues fell to the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 and dropped to 7-9-3 on the season. The defeat was their fourth in five games and the Blues’ offense was blanked for a third time in four games. 

Enough was enough for Doug Armstrong, who later that evening fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Craig Berube. Originally, the Blues general manager planned to cast a wide net in his search for a new head coach. He said he planned to have coaches from the European, junior and college ranks, along with names with NHL experience, like the recently fired Joel Quenneville.

It took some time, but it was clear that Yeo’s full-time replacement was already under contract with the organization, as we all eventually found out.

“He answered the bell,” Armstrong said last spring.

One year later, the Blues finally have a Stanley Cup title and the Blues are lacking any sort of championship hangover as they sit atop the Central Division with a 12-4-5 record and tied for the most points in the Western Conference with 29. They’ve maintained a strong start even after losing Vladimir Tarasenko for likely the rest of the regular season last month. In the 11 games since the winger underwent shoulder surgery St. Louis has a 7-2-2 record.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Jordan Binnington, who’s recall last January helped spark the Blues’ second half run, had a goal this season to prove the doubters wrong. His five-month hot streak has continued into this season with his .923 even strength save percentage in the top 10 among all NHL goaltenders with at least 10 starts.

The Blues haven’t been scoring the lights out since Tarasenko exited the lineup, as they’ve averaged 2.72 goals per game. In fact, their 35 even strength goals are the third-fewest in the NHL this season. They done it with a strong power play (25%) and another balanced approached — much last season. Through 21 games, only Brayden Schenn (11) has hit double digits in goals scored and 18 different players have lit the lamp.

Berube’s message has stayed with the Blues and after a long search to find their identity, success has followed. When he took the job, he saw a team lacking in confidence. It was a good team he was inheriting, but there was one thing missing.

“Just got us to believe,” Schenn said during the Stanley Cup Final in June. “Believe in one another, believe we’re a good hockey team. He took down the standing board in the room and worried about one game at a time, and that’s really all it was.”

Players know where they stand under Berube, and that plays a huge role in earning their trust. That attribute is what turned an interim gig into a championship run and a full-time opportunity.

“He’s an honest guy,” Armstrong told Jim Thomas of the Post-Dispatch. “He speaks from the heart. He doesn’t waste a lot of words. I think he’s accountable to himself and accountable to the team as a whole. And I think he requires each individual to be accountable to the team as a whole also.”

Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage of NHL Live alongside alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

PHT Morning Skate: Babcock betting on himself; impact of Fabbri trade

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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.

• Mike Babcock on the pressures he’s currently facing with the Maple Leafs struggling: “I’m going to do (the job) as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve always bet on Mike Babcock. I’m going to continue to bet on him.” [Toronto Star]

• It’s not been a fun season if you’re employed as a Maple Leafs backup goaltender. [One Puck Short]

• Brady and Matthew Tkachuk have turned into phenomenal NHLers. [TSN]

• It’s been a pretty good first 20 games for the Panthers under Joel Quenneville. [Miami Herald]

• ‘Scrappy’ Jets gaining an identity at season’s quarter-mark. [Winnipeg Free Press]

• Morgan Frost, one of the Flyers’ top prospects, has been recalled. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• How Barry Trotz went from 50/50 sales to winning the Stanley Cup. [Sportsnet]

• What’s bugging the Predators of late? [A to Z Sports Nashville]

• The Bruins are eager to see Charlie McAvoy reached another level. [Boston Herald]

• Fun story from the NCAA over the weekend: Nine minutes before pregame warmups started, North Dakota’s Josh Rieger was eating a pound of buffalo wings. He got the call, rushed to the rink and scored his first goal. [Grand Forks Herald]

• How Robby Fabbri trade impacts Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou. [Detroit Free Press]

• Five women who should be inducted next into the Hockey Hall of Fame. [Sporting News]

• Kris Versteeg asked to be released from his contract with the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs. [NBC Sports Chicago]

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Coyotes are benefitting from the addition of assistant coach Phil Housley. [NHL.com]

• Looking at the best and worst in the history of Flyers jerseys. [Hockey by Design]

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Sharks finally starting to turn things around

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

With just four wins in their first 15 games it was easy to have some very valid concerns about the 2019-20 San Jose Sharks.

They not only still had what was probably the least productive goaltending duo in the league, but the team in front of those goalies looked to be a fraction of the one that had been a Stanley Cup contender in previous years. They were getting dominated territorially, their best players were not producing, and it seemed like a team that was inching its way toward a coaching change — or some other massive change — in an effort to shake things up. Especially since they already tried one roster move to try and turn things around by bringing back veteran forward Patrick Marleau long after it seemed like that was no longer going to be an option.

Things have rapidly started to change for the better in San Jose.

They enter Tuesday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers riding a six-game winning streak and are gaining ground on the teams around them in the Pacific Division.

[COVERAGE OF OILERS-SHARKS BEGINS AT 10:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

They will have an opportunity to keep gaining that ground over the next few weeks with five of their next seven games –including Tuesday’s — coming against Pacific Division foes.

What has changed for the Sharks over the current winning streak?

How about everything.

Well, almost everything.

As a team, the Sharks are finally starting to dictate the pace of play, carrying the possession, and out-chancing teams, all of which is massive shift from earlier in the season. That is also starting to turn into goals, which is turning into ones.

Their top forwards have gone on a tear offensively starting with Logan Couture who has 11 points during the current winning streak. Beyond him, Tomas Hertl is pacing the team with six goals while Timo Meier has nine points.

On defense, Erik Karlsson has started to play like a true impact player and the Norris Trophy contender he should be every year. He has played 25 minutes per night during the streak, is rolling along at a 55 percent Corsi, has six points, and the Sharks are outscoring teams 11-3 when he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

They are also winning the special teams battle, and especially on the penalty kill. Since Nov. 4 (the day before the winning streak started) the Sharks have successfully killed 18 out of 19 penalties. That is good enough for the second best success rate in the league during that stretch, behind only the Pittsburgh Penguins who have been a perfect 12-for-12.

The only big question that exists right now is still the goaltending.

Even with all of their improved play overall the Sharks have still allowed 17 goals in six games, while starting goalie Martin Jones — who has appeared in all six games — still somehow has a save percentage of .891 during the streak, one of the worst marks in the league. It is absolutely amazing the Sharks have been able to turn their season around while Jones still struggles that much, and it is very reminiscent of how the team had to win a year ago.

It still seems like it is going to be a long-term issue that needs to be corrected if this team is going to get back to a championship level.

For now, though, the team in front of him is doing enough to dominate and take goaltending out of the equation and start getting the Sharks back on track.

Randy Hahn, Kendall Coyne Schofield and Bret Hedican will call the Oilers-Sharks contest from SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter.

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.

Capitals’ Hathaway faces potential suspension for spitting

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Getting thrown out of the game probably won’t be the end of Garnet Hathaway’s punishment for spitting on an opponent.

The Washington Capitals forward could be suspended, or at the very least fined, for spitting on Anaheim Ducks defenseman Erik Gudbranson toward the end of a brawl Monday night. Officials gave Hathaway a match penalty that carries with it an ejection and an automatic suspension pending review by the NHL office.

Asked after the Capitals’ 5-2 victory if he expected further discipline, Hathaway said, “I think time will tell with that.” He added he regretted spitting on Gudbranson.

The Ducks were angry at Hathaway for what they called disrespectful behavior but didn’t want to speculate what might happen next. They’re off to the next stop on their road trip, and the Capitals don’t know if they’ll have Hathaway for their next game Wednesday at the New York Rangers.

Anaheim coach Dallas Eakins called it above his pay grade. Gudbranson said: “I have no idea. I’ll trust the league with that.”

Boston Bruins agitator extraordinaire Brad Marchand was warned during the playoffs for licking opponents but was not suspended. There’s little precedent for Hathaway’s actions, other than the part of the rulebook that deems it worthy of an ejection and the league’s process of having its hockey operations department review each match penalty.

Washington is already up against the salary cap with the minimum 12 forwards and six defensemen healthy. If Hathaway is suspended, it could wreak havoc on the Capitals’ roster.

“It seems like it’s been a constant equation for us the last little while here,” coach Todd Reirden said. “(We’ll) see where we’re at in terms of injured players and potential situation here with whatever the league does. It’s out of my hands now.”

MORE: Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson