Lightning get a chance to shake off lull vs. Blue Jackets

Lightning get a chance to shake off lull vs. Blue Jackets
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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning. Blue Jackets-Lightning coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

No, the Tampa Bay Lightning don’t need to panic about their recent relative struggles as they continue down the stretch with Sunday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

If it wasn’t already front of mind, unveiling their 2020 Stanley Cup rings serves as a reminder that the Lightning remain a clear contender. They’ve also suffered great heartache despite entering the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after one of the hottest regular seasons ever. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right?

Combine those thoughts with Nikita Kucherov becoming available during the postseason, and Steven Stamkos possibly being back by then as well, and cooler heads should prevail.

That said … the Lightning are also clearly in “Stanley Cup or bust” mode. After paying big to buttress their depth with Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow during their last run, the Bolts once again paid a ransom to land David Savard.

While the Lightning wiggle under the salary cap year after year, you never know when they might finally get stuck. Especially as their core gradually gets a little older.

[BLUE JACKETS-LIGHTNING COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

So, no, it’s not time to panic. But the Lightning should at least consider themselves on alert after stumbling lately — at least by their lofty standards. Let’s look into some of those details.

Lightning have struggled lately, even if their record isn’t too alarming

If you look at wins and losses alone, the Lightning’s recent struggles would probably earn a shoulder shrug — even with losses to teams like the Red Wings and Blue Jackets.

On March 23, the Lightning presented a sparkling 24-6-2 record. They basically went .500 since then, slipping to 31-14-2. While losing to the Hurricanes and Stars is one thing, it’s a little unsettling to struggle against lower-rung squads. And, even with the Predators on a roll, Jon Cooper understandably called a recent 7-2 loss an “absolute embarrassment.”

While it’s foolish to get too worked up by a short-staffed Lightning team with little more than seeding on the line, this lull could be costly. By stumbling lately, the Lightning look that much less likely to finish atop the Central Division. That’s not the end of the world, but the road to a Stanley Cup repeat would be a lot bumpier if it went through both of the Hurricanes and Panthers.

Moving beyond tougher playoff matchups, let’s consider a few concerns for the Lightning.

A down month for Victor Hedman

If there’s one situation to monitor most of all, it might be Victor Hedman’s relative struggles.

Looking at point totals alone, you’d think Hedman has been his Norris-grade self, as the big defenseman’s produced 42 points in 47 games. When you dig into certain deeper numbers, it’s clearer that Hedman’s play has sagged.

Since the Lightning faced the Blue Jackets on March 30, Hedman was on the ice for eight goals for versus 18 goals against at even-strength. As you can see at Natural Stat Trick, Hedman’s possession stats haven’t been overly positive either.

You don’t see Hedman make many mistakes like getting burned on this Viktor Arvidsson goal:

Much like the Lightning’s larger issues, it’s not wise to get too worked up about Hedman’s ups and downs. But it might be another push to revisit the issue of rest vs. rust.

Hedman is 30 and has accrued a lot of mileage as a workhorse defenseman. That goes for his career, but also over the last year-and-change. If there’s some fatigue here, it might be worth it to give Hedman some nights off. Especially if it becomes clear that, instead of fighting for the Central Division title, the Lightning might end up merely jostling for the second or third seed.

Either way, the Lightning have to hope that Hedman looks more like the Norris and Conn Smythe winner we’re used to seeing.

Leaning too much on Vasilevskiy?

While Hedman might receive extra benefit of the doubt from award voters, Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s outstanding season may actually not be receiving enough attention.

Considering Vasilevskiy’s achievements (including one Vezina Trophy already), it’s bewildering to say this but … the 2020-21 season might be his masterpiece. His 27-8-1 record and .930 save percentage is already impressive enough, but people likely assume that he’s propped up a bit by Tampa Bay.

Instead, they’re leaning quite a bit on their star goalie. Via Hockey Reference, Vasilevskiy easily leads all goalies in Goals Saved Against Average with 22.86. (No other goalie’s even reached 16 yet.)

Beyond being the Vezina frontrunner, it’s more than fair to argue that Vasilevskiy deserves more Hart Trophy consideration.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are justified in fearing a situation that might put Vasilevskiy’s brilliance under the spotlight: losing him for any extended period of time. Simply put, the gulf between Vasilevskiy and other Lightning goalie options appears massive.

(This is a good time to note that goalies are mysterious creatures, but still …)

Curtis McElhinney, for example, ranks among the NHL’s worst goalies in Goals Saved Against Average at -9.09 (and an abysmal .872 save percentage).

Considering all of that, the Lightning might want to bubble wrap Vasilevskiy. Again, if it becomes clear that the Hurricanes or Panthers will finish ahead of Tampa Bay, then they’d be wise to value some energy management.

Again, this is more about monitoring than panicking

To be clear: the Lightning don’t need to sound alarm bells here. Most obviously, they’ll be a very different team with a healthy Steven Stamkos, and especially Nikita Kucherov.

It’s also perfectly reasonable if battle-hardened players like Victor Hedman might find it harder to ratchet up their intensity this time of year.

From here, though, there are some situations for Jon Cooper & Co. to keep an eye on. Facing those pesky Blue Jackets on Sunday gives the Lightning a chance to get sharp for the playoffs.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.