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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.

‘Wild’ NHL playoffs move into next stage with final 16 teams

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Derek Stepan gave some words of advice to his Arizona Coyotes teammates not used to the bright lights of playoff hockey.

”It’s the best time of the year to be playing,” he said.

The time of year is different than usual, but the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs haven’t lost any of their luster or penchant for surprises.

After a qualifying round full of upsets, overtime heroics and comebacks, the traditional first round that starts Tuesday with 16 teams left is primed to feature even more entertainment and unpredictability.

”It’s wild,” said Barry Trotz, whose New York Islanders will next face the Washington Capitals he coached to the title in 2018.

”It’s made for TV, really. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that there was going to be some strange things happen in this strange, unusual time and format. But it’s captivating.”

The Chicago Blackhawks that ranked 23rd out of 31 teams in the regular season are still playing, along with the Montreal Canadiens, who were 24th and not given much hope of moving on.

Chicago has a tough task against the Western Conference No. 1 seed Vegas, and Carey Price‘s Canadiens face the Philadelphia Flyers that earned top billing in the East by going 3-0 against Boston, Tampa Bay and Washington.

”It was a tall task to get that No. 1 seed and we did it,” Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere said. ”We came in here and have been strictly business. I think for us to go out there and get three big wins in a row and get that No. 1 seed is huge for us.”

In a very 2020 turn of events, the Bruins that won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team went winless since the restart and now must take on the Carolina Hurricanes that swept their way to this point. It’s a rematch of the 2019 East final but with Carolina looking more prepared for this showdown.

”They swept us last year, which definitely is going to be good opportunity for us to kind of give back what they gave us last year,” Hurricanes forward Nino Niederreiter said.

The Hurricanes, Islanders and Golden Knights look scary, the Lightning could be without top players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman for at least the start of their series, and the Bruins and Blues that met in last year’s Cup Final haven’t recaptured the dominance they showed until the season was halted in March and combined to go 0-6.

”It doesn’t matter what seed you’re in because you’ve got to beat every team anyways if you want to advance,” Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”It’s over now and start real hockey.”

Half of the remaining field has been playing real hockey for more than a week now. After knocking off the Nashville Predators, captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson said the Coyotes are ”up for the challenge” of taking on the Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks and Flames should also be feeling good after emotional series victories, though Vancouver must face an angry St. Louis bunch that blew leads in all three games.

”We’re not playing aggressive enough in my opinion,” Blues coach Craig Berube said. ”Getting the real thing going here will be important, for sure.”

It’s all best-of-seven until the Stanley Cup is handed out in late September or early October, though the prospect of playing in quarantined bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton could change the psychological dynamic of the playoffs.

”It’s one of those years it’s easier once you’re down to say, ‘Well, I do miss my kids, it’s not our year,”’ Boston coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”You can sort of have that in the back of your mind and certainly some players are going to go through it, and that’s why I feel that maybe some series will be closed out quicker than previous years.”

Only one qualifying round series went to a deciding Game 5: Columbus-Toronto, which also featured two shutouts and each team erasing a 3-0 deficit and winning in overtime. Over nine days, 44 games showed why the league and NHL Players’ Association worked hard to resume the season, and that was just the start of summer hockey madness.

”I’m sure it’ll continue,” Flames coach Geoff Ward said. ”Everybody’s healthy and there’s been extreme parity, but all the teams are playing extremely, extremely hard and that makes for whoever you play a very tough out and a very tough opponent. And I think as these playoffs go on, you’re just going to see more of the same.”

NHL Draft Lottery: No. 1 pick to be awarded Monday night

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The No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will be announced Monday night during Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery (6 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream)

All eight teams that were eliminated in the Stanley Cup Qualifying Round are eligible and each have a 12.5% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Rimouski forward Alexis Lafreniere is expected to be chosen with the first overall selection.

Phase 1 of the draft lottery was held in June and won by a team involved in the NHL’s Return to Play. That means that one of the Rangers, Predators, Panthers, Wild, Penguins, Jets, Oilers, or Maple Leafs will pick first when the draft is held Oct. 9-10, 2020.

According to the NHL, since the 1995 draft, no team has held the No. 1 pick finishing better than 26th in the standings.

Here’s a look at the order of the first 15 picks:

ROUND 1 ORDER
1. Placeholder team
2. Los Angeles Kings
3. Ottawa Senators (via San Jose)
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Anaheim Ducks
7. New Jersey Devils
8. Buffalo Sabres
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9. Placeholder team
10. Placeholder team
11. Placeholder team
12. Placeholder team
13. Placeholder team
14. Placeholder team
15. Placeholder team

The seven losing teams from the First Round who do not win the No. 1 pick will fill out spots 9-15 by reverse order of their regular season points percentages. The remaining 16 Round 1 draft picks will be determined by the results of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

WHAT: 2020 NHL Draft Lottery – Phase 2
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the draft lottery stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

The prospects

Lafreniere will be the No. 1 pick. That’s been settled. After that? It could go a lot of different ways. Quinton Byfield (Sudbury – C- OHL), Tim Stutzle (Adler Mannheim – C/LW – DEL), Lucas Raymond (Frolunda – LW/C – SHL), Jamie Drysdale (Erie – D – OHL), Marco Rossi (Ottawa – C – OHL), Cole Perfetti (Saginaw – C – OHL), Jake Sanderson (D – USNTDP) are among the top prospects expected to be selected early.

Check out Ryan Wagman’s midseason mock draft to further educate yourself on these players.

MORE:
Top NHL Draft Lottery memories

Hockey Hall of Fame postpones 2020 induction

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The Hockey Hall of Fame has postponed its 2020 induction because of the pandemic. The ceremony was to have taken place Nov. 16 in Toronto.

The 2020 class was announced in June and featured forward Jarome Iginla, winger Marian Hossa, defensemen Kevin Lowe and Doug Wilson, Canadian women’s goaltender Kim St. Pierre and longtime general manager Ken Holland.

The Hall said Monday it will discuss rescheduling plans on Oct. 29. Chairman Lanny McDonald said the most likely scenario is to have the ceremony in November 2021, either by waiving the 2021 election or combining the 2020 and 2021 classes. He said a virtual induction ceremony was ruled out.

NHL reports second straight week of zero positive COVID-19 tests

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For the second week in a row the NHL has announced that it had zero positive COVID-19 tests during the Phase 4 portion of its return to play.

The league resumed the 2019-20 season and playoffs in late July with 24 teams playing within two hub cities (Toronto and Edmonton).

Since the participating teams entered their respective bubbles on July 25 they have reported zero positive tests during that time.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The league announced on Monday that it conducted 7,245 tests between August 2 and August 8. Previously the league reported 43 positive tests during the Phase 2 portion of the return (small group workouts at team facilities) and two positive tests during the first week of Phase 3 (return to training camp). But since then the league has reported zero positive tests through the remainder of training camps and, to this point, during the return to play in the hub cities.

The NHL just completed the Qualifying Round and Round-Robin portion of its return to play and will begin the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday afternoon in Toronto and Edmonton.

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

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.