Lightning have returned to being one of NHL’s most dominant teams

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For the first month-and-a-half of the 2019-20 NHL season something seemed to be off with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

They were a .500 team, they weren’t scoring goals the way they did a year ago, and they just looked … stale. Did the Columbus Blue Jackets break them in the playoffs? Did they finally tune out coach Jon Cooper, and would his job be in jeopardy? All things that seemed to be legitimate discussions around, say, the end of November.

Not so much today.

When the Lightning open the second half of the season on Monday night against the Dallas Stars, they will be doing so with one of the league’s best overall records and finally starting to -resemble the team that won 62 regular season games a year ago.

Just take a look at what they have done since the start of Dec. 1 and where their performance ranks among the rest of the league.

  • Record: 17-6-1, .729 points percentage (2nd in NHL)
  • 5-on-5 goal differential: plus-23 (1st in NHL)
  • Total goal differential: plus-28 (1st in NHL)
  • Goals per game: 3.55 (3rd in NHL)
  • Goals against per game: 2.39 (2nd in NHL)
  • Power play percentage: 24.3 (7th in NHL)
  • Penalty kill percentage: 88.9 (1st in NHL)
  • Shot attempt share (5-on-5): 55.9 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Scoring chance share (5-on-5): 60.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • High-danger scoring chance share (5-on-5): 57.6 percent (1st in NHL)
  • Expected goals share (5-on-5): 58.2 percent (1st in NHL)

Completely dominant across the board.

The only team with a better points percentage during that stretch is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they are not only first in several of those categories at 5-on-5, they are in first by a significant margin. Taking their scoring chance share of 60.6 percent, for example. The next closest team has a share of just 57.2 percent, while only three teams (Tampa Bay, Vegas, and Colorado) have a mark higher than 54 percent.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise

On paper this is still one of the best and deepest rosters in the league, and the “struggles” early in the year really come down to nothing more than a slow October to start the season. It’s not uncommon for a team to have a slow month over a 82-game season, but when that month just so happens to be the very first one it’s going to get a lot of attention. Especially when it is a Stanley Cup contender and reigning Presidents’ Trophy winning team.

Overall, the Lightning are doing everything you want to see from a championship caliber roster.

They can outscore almost anyone, they have outstanding special teams, and they are outshooting and outchancing teams at the type elite level that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams. They can do it all.

The other big factor is they have also had some of their best players start to really pick up their production, with none being more important than the recent improvement of starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. It wasn’t that he had a bad start to the season, but it wasn’t matching the bar he set for himself the past couple of years. But over his past 16 starts he has a 14-1-1 record with a .934 save percentage. The only goalies (minimum 10 appearances) with a better save percentage during that stretch is the Columbus duo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo.

When you combine that level of goaltending with the team-wide dominance shown above, that is a potential monster of a team.

Only one more thing to prove

For as good as this Lightning team is — and has been — there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” following them around.

That, of course, is winning the Stanley Cup.

Until they do that there is always going to be a segment of the hockey world that looks to downplay regular season success like this as almost meaningless. It is the same type of thing the Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues dealt with until they won it all over the past two years, and it is sort of what the Toronto Maple Leafs are currently dealing with.

But it is not like this Lightning team hasn’t had success in the postseason.

All anybody remembers at this point is the way they went out in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, getting swept in four straight games to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, it was a shocking upset. One of the biggest in modern Stanley Cup playoff history, and it was worthy of every bit of criticism sent in the Lightning’s direction.

It was also the outlier for them.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season their 283 regular season wins are the second-most in the NHL, just three behind the Capitals’ 286 as of Monday.

Even with last year’s Round 1 sweep, the Lightning’s 36 playoff wins over that same stretch are second most in the league, behind only Pittsburgh and Washington (both tied for first at 39).

It’s not like they have been a team that’s lost in the first round every year, or failed to actually go on a deep run. They made a Stanley Cup Final. They lost a pair of Game 7s in the Eastern Conference Final to teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup. You can criticize the way they lost those series (losing a 2-1 series lead in the SCF; losing 3-2 series leads in both Conference Finals). At that point you’re talking razor thin margins between winning and losing. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.

The only thing you can do is keep stockpiling good players, playing to their strengths, and hope some luck finally goes your way.

Two years ago it finally went the Capitals’ way.

Last year it worked for the Blues.

Maybe this is the year for the Lightning.

MORE: NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contenders entering second half

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.

Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

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SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there Friday night.

Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

WELCOME HOME, LU

Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

Luongo was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

“You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design paid tribute to his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.

He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night.

REMEMBERING JIMMY

Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

ANTHEM POISE

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

SLAP SHOTS

Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

“Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.