Champion Lightning ace final exam on ‘last day of school’

TAMPA, Fla — With the clock ticking on their time together, the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning talked about what they already knew was their last Stanley Cup run as a group.

They talked about it midway through the playoffs. They talked about it on the verge of reaching the final. Changes were coming, so captain Steven Stamkos and his teammates told each other, “Let’s take advantage of this opportunity.”

Tampa Bay did just that in winning the championship back to back, and players and coaches celebrated in a fashion befitting the end of an era. Coach Jon Cooper said it felt like “the last day of school” and the Lightning aced their final exam before inevitable changes break them apart.

“This team, knowing that we’re probably not going to be together, this was the end of a special group for two years,” Cooper said. “Who knows what’s going to happen here, but I think that was a huge motivator for our group.”

It took a strange sequence of events to keep the Lightning together this season. Longtime forward Tyler Johnson was put on waivers last fall when it looked like they needed to clear salary cap space, and general manager Julien BriseBois paid the price of a second-round pick to dump salary in late December.

Then star forward Nikita Kucherov discovered he needed hip surgery, the rehab of which would cause him to miss the entire 56-game regular season that was squeezed into four months. It was a major loss but also one that allowed Tampa Bay to stash his $9.5 million cap hit on long-term injured reserve and put a playoff-worthy team on the ice.

Salary cap gymnastics also allowed Tampa Bay to add David Savard at the trade deadline, and the rugged defenseman who had never won it all before set up rookie Ross Colton’s winning goal in the Cup clincher Wednesday night.

It had all bounced the right way for the Lightning.

“I don’t see the circumstances of what happened last year happening again,” Cooper said during the final. “I know the players don’t see that.”

Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, the 2020 trade deadline pickups who were so important in these two titles, are almost certainly gone as unrestricted free agents. The Lightning could lose Johnson, veteran forward Alex Killorn, savvy defenseman Ryan McDonagh or another important player in the Seattle expansion draft. Playoff leading goal-scorer Brayden Point needs a new contract extension with his deal up next summer.

Add to that the reality of the cap remaining flat at $81.5 million because of pandemic revenue losses across the league, and there’s little cushion for a contender even this deep to pony up to bring the band back together.

Minutes after parading the Stanley Cup around the ice at Amalie Arena, Stamkos said he and his teammates knew that might be the last game the group ever plays together. The Lightning certainly made the most of it as just the second team to repeat since the cap era began in 2005.

“No matter what happens from here on out, this group is going to be etched in history forever,” Stamkos said. “We’re back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. That doesn’t happen very often.”

It’s now up to BriseBois to address Tampa Bay’s impending breakup. After trading first-, second- and fourth-round picks in the draft this year and second- and third-rounders next year as part of loading up to win now, the next steps will be painful and may come with a drop in the standings.

Still, there is reason to believe Tampa Bay will be perennial playoff contenders for years to come and with plenty of talent to add a fourth championship.

Kucherov — who joined Mario Lemieux as the only players to lead two consecutive postseasons in scoring — is signed through 2026. Norris Trophy finalist defenseman and 2020 playoff MVP Victor Hedman is signed through 2025 and Stamkos through 2024.

The most important piece of the future is goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is under contract through 2028. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP after never losing back-to-back games and posting a shutout to close out each round.

“When he locks in, he is remarkable to watch,” Cooper said. “I can’t believe how he shuts the door in the biggest games of his career.”

Tampa Bay may need Vasilevskiy to bring his peak playoff form to the regular season. That’s the kind of evolution Jonathan Quick went through with the Los Angeles Kings after winning the Cup twice in three seasons, and Vasilevskiy looks up to the challenge of putting Tampa Bay on his shoulders.

“He doesn’t want people next to him to say he’s the best because he wants to prove it,” Kucherov said. “But I know he’s the best.”

The Lightning the past two years might have been the best the NHL can offer in a cap world, even with an expiration date on a run of success that includes three trips to the final and five to the semifinals in the past seven years.

Cigar in hand, Cooper didn’t want to talk about next season yet. .

“Let’s be honest: We’ve been knocking at the door for so many years,” he said. “To be able to do it back-to-back, it kind of cements this group as, well, they’re special.”

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

    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    caufield surgery
    David Kirouac/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    matty beniers
    Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports

    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

    Andrei Kuzmenko
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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.