Lightning looking like team capable of Stanley Cup three-peat

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Winning the Stanley Cup requires a perfect storm of circumstances that include a talented roster, that is healthy, that is playing well at the right time, gets the right matchups, and finds a little bit of well timed luck in the playoffs to get through what are almost certainly tightly contested best-of-seven series.

Having all of that happen one time is a remarkably difficult achievement.

Doing it all again — and having it all happen again — the following year and winning it again is, obviously, even more difficult.

Having it all happen three years in row is something else entirely. There is a reason it has happened just two times in the post-Original Six era, and not since the early 1980s New York Islanders.

But if any team is capable of doing what seems to be the impossible, it might very well be the Tampa Bay Lightning who are not showing any signs of slowing down no matter how much their roster changes. It is not exactly a surprise that Lightning are once again one of the league’s best teams because they have been for the past seven years. During that stretch no team has won more regular season or playoff games, while they have been in the Conference Final five times, the Stanley Cup Final three times, and have obviously won each of the past two Cups.

Entering the week the Lightning have the league’s second-best points percentage (.724, trailing only the Carolina Hurricanes at .741) and are 17-3-3 in their past 23 games after a slow start to the regular season.

[NHL Power Rankings: Golden Knights climbing; Lightning second]

Even more, every objective metric we have to measure team performance says they are one of the league’s best teams.

Their 5-on-5 possession, scoring chance, and expected goal numbers are all elite, as is their 5-on-5 goal differential.

If you wanted to find a flaw, their special teams are not great at the moment. But as long as the 5-on-5 play keeps being dominant there is reason to believe they can continue to overcome those struggles (and improve on them).

But what is so impressive about the Lightning’s current success is how different the roster is right now as compared to the playoffs.

Because of the salary cap and expansion draft the Lightning had to let several key players go this offseason. Tyler Johnson was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap clearing move, while their entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yannie Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow (one of their best lines over the past two years and one of the most effective lines in the NHL) left in free agency and the expansion draft.

That is a lot of talent and key contributors to lose in one offseason. For most teams, it would put a major dent in what they are capable of.

The Lightning have not really slowed down. It is not just the players they lost to other teams, either. Nikita Kucherov, their top offensive player, has played in just three games this season and none since the first week of the season. Brayden Point, one of their other top players, has appeared in just 16 games and none over the past month. Since Point went out of the lineup (meaning no Point and no Kucherov in the lineup) the Lightning are 10-2-1, which is tied for the best points percentage in the league (.808, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins) during that stretch.

What has allowed them to stay on top of the league with so many key contributors out of the lineup or now playing for other teams?

For starters, they still have a couple of superstars in their lineup. Steven Stamkos is healthy and playing at an elite level still to help carry the offense. Victor Hedman is still one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL. Along with those two it still remains an incredibly deep organization because their second-tier complementary players are still excellent. Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Mikhail Sergachev are all having excellent seasoans.

The biggest factor, though, is the fact the Lightning still have Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Not only is Vasilevskiy the best goalie in the world, he is one of the best and most valuable players, regardless of position, in the entire NHL. He is durable, dominant, and a game-changer every game he appears in.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season the Lightning have a 165-55-14 record in games where he is the goalie of record, while owns a .923 all situations save percentage (tops in the league) and a .929 even-strength save percentage (tops in the league). That record for Vasilevskiy would average out to a 127 point pace over 82 games.

(The Lightning play at a 100-point pace over that same time period when any other goalie other Vasilevskiy is the goalie of record, while they actually have a losing record over the past three years)

None of that takes into account his postseason performance in recent years which is equally dominant. The combination of having the league’s best team and the league’s best goalie makes the Lightning a terrifying matchup for pretty much anybody because they not only have very few flaws, they have a goalie that can consistently mask the flaws they do have.

Given his individual performance and the impact he has on the Lightning and the outcome of games there is a strong argument to be made he is one of the two or three most valuable players in the entire league.

This is the biggest reason the Lightning might have a legitimate shot to actually pull off the impossible and win a third straight Cup.

If you have the best goalie, you always have a chance.

Especially when you have an elite two-way defender can play half of the game in front of him.

And when you keep playing at an elite level without your two best offensive players who will eventually be returning to the lineup and be ready for the playoffs.

Obviously a lot still has to happen for the Lightning to get back to that point where they can win another championship and pull off the NHL’s first three-peat in over 35 years. But everything in the way they play, the players they have, and where they have superstars gives them one heck of an opportunity.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

Rasmus Sandin
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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.

Back with Wild, Fleury welcomes big workload as clear No. 1

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — With his ever-present smile, tireless approach and long list of accomplishments in the net, Marc-Andre Fleury has always embraced a heavy workload.

The Minnesota Wild sure haven’t shied away from leaning hard on their new – and 37-year-old – goalie. After arriving in a deadline-day trade in March and re-signing with the Wild in July, the guy everyone calls “Flower” is still fully abloom as he begins his 19th season in the NHL.

“They say, `You play,’ I play, unless maybe I’m hurt or something,” Fleury said. “But other than that, I like playing.”

Wild general manager Bill Guerin initially planned to bring back both Fleury and Cam Talbot, who made the All-Star team and went 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular season starts before being benched in favor of Fleury for the first-round playoff series against St. Louis. The Wild lost in six games, after Talbot got the cold start in the elimination game and gave up four goals on 26 shots.

Guerin changed his mind, though, after signing Fleury to a two-year, $7 million contract. Realizing Talbot’s frustration from the lack of postseason action, he didn’t want to risk any tension or discontent. Talbot was traded to Ottawa for Filip Gustavsson, who will be the No. 2 goalie while top prospect Jesper Wallstedt gets more development in the AHL.

Gustavsson has only 23 career regular-season starts, nearly 200 fewer than Talbot, so it’s a good bet that Fleury will get the majority of the games.

“I was ready to share the load with him, but things didn’t work out and happy to be having the chance to play maybe a bit more. It’s fun to play. It’s more fun than sitting on the bench,” said Fleury, who went 28-23-5 in 56 combined starts for Chicago and Minnesota last season with a 2.90 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Wild reconvened for training camp last week, beginning their quest to recapture the mojo they enjoyed last season while setting franchise records for points (113), wins (53) and goals (305). The only team that finished ahead of them in the Western Conference was Colorado, which went on to win the Stanley Cup, but they never met the Avs in the playoffs because the Blues got to them first.

There’s a strong chemistry in place, at least, to build upon.

“We still have a lot of guys here who were here last year. We’re just trying to make it even better, just trying to listen to everybody,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said. “We want to set a standard and a way for how hard this team’s going to work.”

The Wild start the regular season by hosting the New York Rangers on Oct. 13.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

The most significant roster move of the summer amongst the skaters was the inevitable salary-cap-driven trade of second-leading scorer Kevin Fiala to Los Angeles. Fiala had a career-high 33 goals and 52 assists last season. Guerin otherwise dabbled mostly in two-way contracts in free agency for depth. Former Anaheim center Sam Steel signed with Minnesota last month, one day after defenseman Dimitry Kulikov was dealt to the Ducks.

MORE POWER

The Wild were done in during the playoffs by abysmal special teams. They went just 4 for 24 on the power play against the Blues, and head coach Dean Evason had the team working on that on the first day on the ice. The penalty kill that lagged last season was a focus of the second practice.

“It has to get better, no question,” Evason said.

BLUE LINE SHUFFLE

Captain Jared Spurgeon has been placed with Jonas Brodin on the first pair on defense, and Jake Middleton has joined Matt Dumba on the second unit. Dumba and Brodin are close friends who’ve been paired together for several seasons.

“Dumbs is a shooter too,” said Middleton, who re-signed for three years and $7.35 million. “It’s pretty exciting. I can get some cookies passing him the puck. That’d be a big plus. I think it’ll work well. He loves hitting guys too. He plays a gritty game as well so I think we’ll be a good combo.”

UP FRONT

With Jordan Greenway recovering from offseason surgeries, Tyson Jost will get the first chance to skate with Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno. The departure of Fiala has opened at least one spot for a rookie to make the team, with 2020 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi in line for it.

ON THE SLATE

This is the first time in eight years the Wild will play their regular-season opener at home. After three more games at Xcel Energy Center, they don’t hit the road until a five-game trip that starts Oct. 22 at Boston. The Wild have a season-long nine-game homestand from Feb. 9-21.