Anthony Cirelli

Get ready to learn a lot about the Lightning

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With a cursory glance at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s upcoming schedule, it was tempting to predict that the team will look like a juggernaut again very soon.

After beating the Predators in overtime in an unexpectedly nasty game in Nashville, the opportunity is indeed there to enjoy some home cooking. The Lightning play:

  • Their next three games at home.
  • Seven of their next eight games in Tampa Bay.
  • Could be set for a big December overall with 10 of their next 12 games at home.

Yet, when you dig a little deeper, the situation is even more interesting because a hot streak isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for Tampa Bay. While it’s dangerous to read too much into any month in the marathon that is an NHL regular season, it’s fair to say that we should get a better idea of what kind of team the Lightning might be in 2019-20.

Bumpy start

Chalk it up to a hangover from that jarring sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, Brayden Point limping into the early part of the season, or any other number of factors, but it’s clear that something’s been a bit off about the Lightning in 2019-20.

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect the Lightning to duplicate 2018-19’s regular-season magic, but it’s still jarring that, as of Dec. 4, Tampa Bay is not in a playoff position.

Now, sure, some of that is misleading. After all, the Lightning have only played in 25 games, the lowest total in the NHL. Still, a 13-9-3 record feels closer to a drizzle than a thunderstorm.

It’s a tad bit unnerving that Tampa Bay’s record is closer to “meh” than dominant when you consider that a decent number of things are going right for the Lightning.

Their power play is still humming along with a robust 29.3 percent success rate, third-best in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov isn’t on another 120-point pace, he’s still a dangerous scorer, and the Lightning are getting strong production from Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman (remarkably, 23 points in as many games), and Brayden Point. Beyond the usual suspects, they’re also seeing an even-more-revitalized-than-expected Kevin Shattenkirk (not far behind Hedman with 20 points in 25 GP), and some nice contributions from rising players like Anthony Cirelli.

The Lightning’s even-strength PDO (1.017) ranks seventh-highest in the NHL, a quick reference that indicates that they aren’t suffering from particularly terrible puck luck.

While their goaltending hasn’t been great (Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney share matching .908 save percentages), it hasn’t been a full-fledged disaster.

So … it’s fair to wonder if this Lightning team might fall closer to good than great. But, again, this stretch will tell us quite a bit about their ceiling — not everything, but quite a bit.

Another look at this home-heavy stretch

Here’s that span of 12 games, with road contests in italics:

Dec. 5: vs. Minnesota
Dec. 7: vs. San Jose
Dec. 9: vs. Islanders
Dec. 10: at Florida
Dec. 12: vs. Boston
Dec. 14: vs. Washington
Dec. 17: vs. Ottawa
Dec. 19: vs. Dallas
Dec. 21: at Washington
Dec. 23: vs. Florida
Dec. 28: vs. Montreal
Dec. 29: vs. Detroit

While the Senators and Red Wings stand as games the Lightning absolutely should win, and there are matches against teams who have been up and down (Wild, Sharks, Stars), it all looks like a set of challenges as much as this is a golden opportunity.

After all, the Lightning are only 6-4-1 so far at home this season, and that’s with that trip to Sweden mucking things up a bit.

***

It’s hyperbolic to say that this is a do-or-die stretch for the Lightning, but it’s still one of the more significant spans of their season.

Consider it the equivalent to an animal storing fat for in preparation for a difficult winter. From Dec. 31 through Feb. 1, the Lightning face what could be a treacherous run of away games: four in a row to begin 2020, 12 out of 15 games on the road. While that set of opponents is softer (at least on paper), it would likely help if they entered that run on a high note.

Do you think the Lightning can take advantage of December to prove that they’re still truly among the elite, or will they continue to face peaks and valleys?

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.

NHL Fantasy: Krejci, Perry highlight this week’s top adds

Welcome to our weekly Adds/Drops column, where I focus on highlighting players you should consider grabbing or be concerned about in fantasy leagues. As always, the goal here isn’t to recommend 10 players you must add and five players that need to be dropped. Context is everything and the context of each league is different. What this is instead is a guideline so that if you’re looking to make a change, you have potential players to target and if you see players I’ve suggested to drop, you can evaluate your potential alternates.

Players Worth Adding

Brock Nelson, Islanders – C/LW: Nelson set a career-high last season with 53 points in 82 games and at this rate the 2019-20 campaign will be even better. He has eight goals and 19 points in 21 contests, though that point-per-game pace has been skewed by his recent run of nine points in six contests. It also helps that Nelson is averaging 19:01 minutes a game, which is up from 17:58 minutes in 2018-19 and way up from 14:44 minutes in 2017-18. While I do expect him to slow down somewhat, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him reach the 60-point milestone this season.

Oliver Bjorkstrand, Blue Jackets – LW/RW: Bjorkstrand got off to a pretty rough start this season with just four goals and six points in 19 games. He’s been red hot lately though with a goal and six points in his last three contests. While he’s likely to be a borderline player in standard fantasy leagues overall in 2019-20, he’s worth taking a chance on as long as he’s hot.

Anthony Duclair, Senators – LW/RW: Duclair has been somewhat hot-and-cold this season and right now he’s hot. He has four goals and six points in his last four contests. He’s up to 10 goals and 15 points in 23 contests this season, which puts him on pace to best his previous career-high of 44 points. That’s not surprising though, given that he’s averaging 16:25 minutes per game, which is up from just 12:42 minutes in 2018-19 when he recorded 33 points in 74 contests.

Corey Perry, Stars – RW: Perry is definitely a risk, but one that could pay off nicely. He didn’t make his season debut until Oct. 16th due to a foot injury. After that, he was slow to get going with his new team, scoring two goals and four points in 14 games. Now he’s showing signs of getting going though. He contributed a goal and an assist on Nov. 19th and he registered three assists on Nov. 21st. It’s been a while since we’ve seen Perry as a major offensive threat, but he’s also had a lot of injury troubles in recent years. There’s absolutely a chance that his recent strong performances are nothing more than a blip on the radar, but if you’re feeling bold, this is a time to try him.

[For more fantasy sports analysis, check out Rotoworld]

Anthony Beauvillier, Islanders – C/LW: Beauvillier enjoyed four consecutive multi-point games from Nov. 13-21. He’s up to eight goals and 16 points in 21 after that run, which is a huge start for him given that he was limited to 28 points in 81 contests last season. That said, his jump in production has gone hand-in-hand with added responsibilities. He logged 14:39 minutes per game in 2018-19, which at the time was a career-high for him, and that’s jumped to an average of 17:52 minutes this season.

David Krejci, Bruins – C: Krejci had 73 points in 81 games last season and the 2019-20 campaign is shaping up to be similarly strong. He has four goals and 15 points in 17 contests so far. He’s only owned 31% of leagues despite his strong offensive numbers. That’s largely due to him being only eligible as a center and because the vast majority of his points coming from assists, but even still, he certainly has value. At the least, you can keep him in mind as a potential stopgap measure if your team takes a hit due to injuries.

Anthony Cirelli, Lightning – C: Cirelli is another center-only option, but he’s a very different case than Krejci. Rather than be just a steady option, Cirelli is someone you’d want to consider taking because of how hot he is. He has four goals and seven points in his last four contests. He’s not likely to be a long-term option, but if you’re hoping to just ride a hot player, then he’s certainly worthy of consideration.

Mats Zuccarello, Wild – RW: Zuccarello had just an assist in his first seven games, but that was probably due in part to him adjusting to life with the Wild. Since then, he’s scored four goals and 10 points in 12 contests. He is only averaging 15:49 minutes, which is somewhat concerning, but given how well he’s done lately, he’s still a good pickup in most situations.

Bryan Rust, Penguins – LW/RW: Rust is still only owned in 34% of Yahoo leagues, but he’s been really good this season. Part of the reason why he’s been able to fly under the radar is because he didn’t make his season debut until Oct. 26th. In terms of his points pace though, he’s been superb with eight goals and 13 points in 12 contests. He’s never recorded more than 38 points in a single season, so it’s reasonable to ask if he can keep this up, but so far he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He’s only been held off the scoresheet in two contests and is on a four-game point streak.

Brett Connolly, Panthers – LW/RW: With 11 goals and 18 points in 24 contests this season, Connolly has been pretty solid. It’s been something of a hot-and-cold campaign for him, so he might be more of a player to grab in certain situations than to own all the time. Even if that’s the case though, this would be the situation to grab him in given that he’s hot right now. He has five goals and seven points in six contests. 

Players You May Want To Drop

P.K. Subban, Devils – D: I had high hopes for what Subban could bring to the Devils, but he’s ended up doing very little offensively. He has just two goals and five points in 22 games this season. He hasn’t shown any signs of turning around either. In fact, he has no points over his last 10 contests.

Viktor Arvidsson, Predators – LW/RW: Arvidsson is unfortunately a pretty cut-and-dry case. He was injured Saturday night and is projected to miss the next four-to-six weeks as a result. He’s a solid forward, but not good enough that he’s worth holding onto for over a month while he’s notplaying.

Conor Garland, Coyotes – LW/RW: Garland has managed to score 10 goals in 25 games, but he hasn’t done a whole lot else. Those goals have come in bunches too with his latest batch being three goals in four games from Nov. 12-18th.  Now that he’s cooled down again, he’s probably not worth hanging onto, but it would still be good to keep an eye on him as you may want to grab him again later.

Andreas Johnsson, Maple Leafs – LW/RW: Johnsson is one of those forwards whose worth owning in standard leagues when he’s hot, but not at all times. Right now, he’s gone cold with no points in his last six games. There’s also a secondary consideration with him because his role may be somewhat reduced under new head coach Sheldon Keefe. He logged over 18 minutes in six of his final seven games under Mike Babcock. In Keefe’s first two games, he was on the ice for 15:49 minutes and 16:12 minutes. Not a huge drop, but it is noteworthy.

Shayne Gostisbehere, Flyers – D: Gostisbehere set a career-high with 65 points in 2017-18 before dropping to 37 points in 2018-19. This season is shaping up to be another sharp decline for Gostisbehere as he’s scored just a goal and six points in 22 contests so far. He’s also averaging 18:30 minutes, which is his lowest ice time per game since his two-game stint as a rookie in 2014-15.

If you’re looking for fantasy hockey information, Rotoworld is a great resource. You can check the player news for the latest information on any player and insight into their fantasy outlook.

Every week Michael Finewax looks ahead at the schedule and offers team-by-team notes in The Week Ahead. I have a weekly Fantasy Nuggets column where I basically talk about whatever’s captured my attention that week. Gus Katsaros does an Analytics columns if you want to get into detailed statistical analysis. If you’re interested in rookies and prospects, there’s a weekly column on that written by McKeen’s Hockey. 

For everything fantasy hockey, check out Rotoworld’s Player News, and follow @Rotoworld_ HK and @RyanDadoun on Twitter.

Stamkos focused on team success, not personal milestones

TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos celebrated another milestone in a stellar career with grace and humility.

The long-time captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning scored his 400th goal last weekend, joining an elite group that includes eight other active players – Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau, Marian Hossa, Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton and Marian Gaborik.

”I’m sure this will be one of those moments you reflect on after the fact, but in saying that it’s still pretty surreal,” the six-time All-Star, who’s played his entire career with Tampa Bay, said after accomplishing the feat during a loss at home to the Winnipeg Jets.

”You never envision scoring that many goals in the NHL, and hopefully a lot more to come,” Stamkos added. ”But it’s a great honor and privilege to play in this league for a long time, and to do it with one organization is pretty special.”

At 29, Stamkos is in his 12th season and no longer the most dynamic scorer on a deep, talented roster featuring reigning league MVP and scoring champion Nikita Kucherov and rising star Brayden Point. He remains the face of the franchise, though, and entered Tuesday night’s game against defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues with a team-leading seven goals, along with 13 assists for 20 points.

He scored No. 400 on a one-timer late in a 4-3 loss to the Jets, reaching the milestone in his 763 career games. Among active players with at least 400, only Ovechkin did it in fewer games.

”Minor hockey to juniors, I don’t think I’ve scored 400 goals in my life and he’s done it at the highest level you can play at. What an amazing accomplishment. …Probably him and Ovechkin are the best goal scorers in the league,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said.

Maroon, in his first season with Tampa Bay, signed with the Lightning as a free agent after helping the Blues win their first NHL title.

”Every single night he proves he’s a natural goal scorer, and that’s why teams lock on him all the time. He’s dangerous at all parts of the ice, especially in the O-zone,” Maroon said. ”I’m really happy for him. … Now he gets to chase 500.”

A more immediate goal is to help the Lightning get back to the playoffs, where Tampa Bay was swept in the first round after matching the league record for regular season victories with 62.

The team is off to a slower than anticipated start – 9-7-2 after Tuesday night’s 3-1 loss at St. Louis – however coach Jon Cooper and his players say there’s no cause for alarm.

Thursday night’s game at Chicago concludes a season-opening stretch in which the Lightning play 12 of 19 games on the road, including an extended trip to Sweden for the NHL Global series, where they won two games against Buffalo and felt they began to come together as a team.

This weekend starts a five-week stretch in which they will play 14 of 18 at home.

”We’ve got to build on what happened in Sweden. It will be nice come end of November (and) December to get a little rhythm at home, and hopefully we can get a little traction,” Cooper said.

”Obviously, being away for two weeks is tough, but I’d say we made the most of it as a group,” Stamkos said. ”We got two big wins. It doesn’t stay over there, though. It’s about coming together now. We’ve had a really difficult season. We see the record that we have with two straight weeks on the road and the majority of our games being played (on the road). I think we’re pretty happy with the results. … I think we took a step forward (in Sweden).”

One potential benefit to playing so many early road games is the schedule has allowed for additional practice time, where the Lightning have focused on several areas that were problematic during the team’s first-round postseason loss to Columbus last spring.

The Lightning were the NHL’s highest scoring team last season. The offense remains elite, and there’s also a concerted effort to get better defensively.

”From the games in Sweden to (now), we’ve just to keep building, keep on playing the right way,” center Anthony Cirelli said, ”and good things will happen.”

HOLTBY BOUNCING BACK

Defensive miscues in front of Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby have made his numbers this season look less than stellar. But the 2016 Vezina Trophy winner has been better than the stats indicate and specifically is 10-0-1 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .926 save percentage since a brief ”reset” in mid-October.

”I said from that day there’s no goaltending controversy and there isn’t,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”He’s a winner. He’s a competitor. He battles. He’s not stopping until he figures out a way to improve. It’s such a credit to him as a person. (Goalie coach) Scott Murray does a great job with him. They work well together in terms of coming up with ways to figure out what’s going wrong.”

FLYERS ON TRACK

The typically slow-starting Philadelphia Flyers have points in 14 of their first 20 games, and much of the credit for that goes to Alain Vigneault. Philadelphia’s new coach put in video teaching that gets players to see their mistakes to correct them, and an onus on accountability is working.

”What we’re trying to do here is tell our players what they need to do on the ice, what they need to do as far as team preparation,” Vigneault said. ”Accountability, I think a lot of it has to do with understanding the game. When you can understand the game and evaluate your performance the way you’re supposed to, it helps you work on certain things and it helps you improve your game.”

WATCH LIVE: Lightning vs. Sabres in 2019 NHL Global Series

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Friday’s Global Series matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Lightning and Sabres head to Stockholm, Sweden for a “home and home” in the NHL Global Series. Friday’s game will mark the second Global Series game this season, with the Flyers beating the Blackhawks in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4.

This is the second regular season trip overseas for both teams. The Lightning lost both of their games in Czech Republic in 2008, while the Sabres won both of their games in Finland and Germany in 2011.

This will be the 33rd regular season game contested outside North America. It will be the 12th to be played in Sweden, the most among all countries, and the 11th game in Stockholm, the most of any city. The only game to take place in Sweden outside of the capital was New Jersey’s win against Edmonton in Gothenburg in October of last season.

The Lightning have lost three of their last four games, while they gave up six goals in their only win during that stretch (7-6 OT win at New Jersey). After opening the season with eight wins in their first 10 games, the Sabres have now lost four of their last five and head to Sweden on a three-game losing streak.

While captain Steven Stamkos leads Tampa with 13 points in 13 games (5G-8A), he has just one goal in his last seven games and none in his last three. Last season’s Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is second on TB with 11 pts (4G-7A) but has just one goal in the last nine games.

Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who just turned 23 years old last week, continues to lead the team in scoring with 17 points in 15 games this season (7G-10A). Eichel, who finished last season with a career-high 82 points, has seen his point total increase in every season of his NHL career. He is currently on pace for 92 points this season

[COVERAGE OF LIGHTNING-SABRES BEGINS AT 2 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Buffalo Sabres vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
WHERE: Ericsson Globe – Stockholm, Sweden
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 8, 2 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Sabres stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Alexander Volkov
Tyler JohnsonBrayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Patrick MaroonCedric PaquetteYanni Gourde

Victor HedmanKevin Shattenkirk
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Luke Schenn – Mikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

SABRES
Victor Olofsson – Jack Eichel – Sam Reinhart
Jeff SkinnerMarcus JohanssonVladimir Sobotka
Jimmy VeseyCasey MittelstadtConor Sheary
Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonKyle Okposo

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen
Brandon MontourRasmus Dahlin
Henri JokiharjuColin Miller

Starting goalie: Linus Ullmark

John Forslund and Pierre McGuire will call Friday’s matchup.

Lightning look to grow game, themselves in Sweden

The Tampa Bay Lightning have not performed at a peak level to start the 2019-20 NHL season and a trip overseas might help them solve a few of their problems.

The Bolts will participate in the NHL Global Series and will play in back-to-back games against a divisional opponent, the Buffalo Sabres in Stockholm, Sweden starting Friday (2 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

“Obviously it’s something I’ve never been a part of,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “To be able go to Sweden, somewhere I have never been, and see the fans down there, and play some hockey games is pretty cool, pretty special. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

General manager Julien Brisebois has been a part of a few European adventures throughout his experience working in a front office. During his time with the Hamilton Bulldogs, his team went to Scotland for training camp one year. Additionally, while overseeing the Syracuse Crunch organization (Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate), the club went to France.

“It’s a great experience, it kind of broadens your horizons,” Brisebois told NBC Sports. “It’s a great opportunity for some team bonding, spending some time as a group in a new environment and I know Sweden has a huge base of hockey fans and I am sure it’s going to be a rocking building in Stockholm.”

The Lightning will also have a familiar tour guide in Victor Hedman. The alternate captain and defenseman grew up approximately six hours north of Stockholm in Ornskoldsvik.

“Victor is going to kind of be our social director for the players while we are over there,” Brisebois said. “We have a few activities with our fans as we have a number of fans traveling over. Most of the other social activities including our last night in Stockholm, on a Saturday night, I think Victor is in charge of those plans.”

Hedman missed the previous two games before the trip with a lower-body injury and is hopeful he will get the opportunity to play an NHL game in front of Swedish fans.

“Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the NHL as much as kids can nowadays,” Hedman told NHL.com. “Both TV and obviously us coming over [are] going to help promote them and even more kids, hopefully, can dream of becoming an NHL player. I’m just looking forward to going back there, seeing kids and friends and family in the stands. Hopefully we can make their dreams come true watching an NHL game.”

Aside from growing the game internationally, the Lightning have some growth of their own to do in-house.

“Lots to work on,” Brayden Point said of the team’s sluggish start. “There are definitely some positives we can take from the start of the season, but there are things we need to be better at and things we need to work on. Hopefully this week [in Sweden] we can address some of those things in practice and keep getting better every day.”

From the start of last year’s regular season, the Lightning’s offense clicked on all cylinders and scored timely goals when it mattered most. This year, consistency has been an issue as the team has put forth only a couple of complete 60-minute efforts during a 6-5-2 start.

“That’s when frustration sets in. When you are working so hard and ‘breaks aren’t going your way’”, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the 5-2 loss to the Islanders. “Eventually with the skill set we have up front, we will score some goals.”

While the Lightning understand the importance of promoting the sport and taking advantage of a great opportunity to play in an exotic destination, the top priority remains intact.

“Ultimately this is a business trip for us,” Brisebois said. “There are four points at stake, we need to go out there and get the job done on the ice.”