Lightning has everything it takes to win another Stanley Cup

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There is no longer a “yeah, but…” hanging over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Now that this core of players has its championship, there can no longer be any debate as to where they stand among the best teams of this era. For six years now they have been the best team in hockey. Nobody has won more games than them in the regular season, nobody has won more games than them in the playoffs, and they finally — finally! — had everything go their way at the right time.

The idea that this team has somehow “underachieved” come playoff time is completely unfair and takes away from the daunting challenge that is winning the Stanley Cup. They have been in the Eastern Conference Final in four of the past six seasons, and twice made it through to the Stanley Cup Final. In the other two years they lost Game 7s to the team that went on to eventually win the Stanley Cup. No other team in the league has consistently gone that far in the playoffs during that stretch. It was only a matter of time until a team this successful and this good had it all click.

The Lightning are a lesson in patience, trusting your talent, and sticking to your plan that you know is successful, instead of overreacting and dismantling something before you have to.

They are a lesson in not being afraid to go for it at the trade deadline and add the one or two pieces you need to fully round out your roster (Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow). A late first-round pick might make it to the NHL someday. There is a small chance they will have a productive career. But banners? Banners hang forever.

[More: Lightning win Stanley Cup]

Now that they have this banner, there is no reason to think they can not add another one in the very near future with this core.

Potentially as soon as next season.

They have every ingredient on their roster to do it again.

For starters, we already know this team is capable of making a deep run. Even when it fell short of a championship in recent years it was still RIGHT THERE on the threshold of greatness.

  • They went through this postseason without the face of their franchise, Steven Stamkos. He will be back next season and is still an elite goal scorer.
  • They have a superstar in Nikita Kucherov that is one of the most dominant offensive players in the league and still in the prime of his career.
  • Brayden Point has gone from “good young player” to “top-tier scorer” in the blink of an eye.
  • Victor Hedman is the best all-around defenseman in hockey, and for as much as we talk about their offensive brilliance, they are also a fantastic defensive team.
  • They have a dominant second line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow returning for what should be a bargain price.
  • As if that is not enough, they also have one of the league’s best goalies in Andrei Vasilevskiy, also still in the prime of his career. This team is so good and so loaded that Vasilevskiy just went through a Stanley Cup winning postseason where he played every minute in goal for his team, posted a .927 save percentage, recorded a shutout in the Cup-clinching game, and was not even one of the top-three or four contenders for the Conn Smythe trophy. He was an afterthought.

It is an insanely talented and deep roster with almost all of the major players under contract long-term.

[Related: What is next for Dallas Stars?]

That brings us to the questions they do have to face this offseason.

For starters, their blue line could take a hit in free agency as Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Braydon Coburn are the only players currently under contract for next season.

Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are restricted free agents, while Kevin Shattenkirk, Luke Schenn, and Zach Bogosian are unrestricted.

Shattenkirk would be a big loss, and it is difficult to see them being able to bring him back on another cheap deal given the season he had, but they do still have the rights to Sergachev and Cernak.

Restricted free agency is going to be tricky. Along with the two defenders, they also have to re-sign Anthony Cirelli and Carter Verhaege. At the moment, the Lightning have just a little more than $5 million in salary cap space at their disposal.

That will not be enough to re-sign all of Sergachev, Cirelli, Verhaege, and Cernak, so some corresponding moves will have to be made. Tyler Johnson ($5 million cap hit) and Alex Killorn ($4.5 million cap hit) would seem to be the most logical places to start. The only potential issue there is both players have no-trade clauses as part of their contracts. That doesn’t mean they can not or will not be moved. And while such a move would hurt, it is another good argument for why the Coleman and Goodrow trades were so impactful given their value and cheap contracts for next season.

In the end, the Lightning roster will almost certainly look a little different next season. But as long as the same core is in place, and as long as they continue to have a steady pipeline of young talent coming through their system (could someone like Alex Barre-Boulet be their next hidden gem?) there is no reason to think they are going away as Stanley Cup favorites.

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.

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.

Penguins prospect Sam Poulin taking leave of absence

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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins forward prospect Sam Poulin is taking a leave of absence from the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Penguins general manager Ron Hextall announced on Wednesday that the 21-year-old Poulin, Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2019 draft, is stepping away due to “personal reasons.”

“The Penguins support Sam’s decision to take time away from hockey to focus on himself,” Hextall said in a release. “As with all of our players, our priority is them as individuals first. We look forward to having him back with the team when he is ready.”

Hextall said Poulin will return home to Quebec and continue to work out on his own.

Poulin made his NHL debut in October and had one assist in three games before heading back to the AHL. Poulin had four goals in 13 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton at the time of his decision.

Nathan MacKinnon sidelined about a month with upper-body injury

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DENVER — The injury-riddled Colorado Avalanche will be without leading scorer Nathan MacKinnon for about a month after he suffered an upper-body injury in a loss to Philadelphia.

The team announced the news on social media.

MacKinnon has eight goals and 26 assists for a team-best 34 points this season for the defending Stanley Cup champions. He joins a long list of banged-up players, including Valeri Nichushkin, Evan Rodrigues, Bowen Byram, Kurtis MacDermid, Josh Manson, Darren Helm and captain Gabriel Landeskog. Forward Artturi Lehkonen also missed the game in Philadelphia.

The 27-year-old MacKinnon signed an eight-year extension in August. He was coming off a postseason in which he tied for the league lead with 13 goals, helping the Avalanche raise their third Stanley Cup in franchise history.