Brayden Point

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 fines Predators’ Ryan Johansen $5,000 for elbowing

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NEW YORK — The NHL has fined Nashville Predators forward Ryan Johansen $5,000 for elbowing Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point during the Lightning’s 3-2 overtime win.

The league’s Department of Player Safety announced the fine Wednesday, which is the maximum amount allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

Johansen elbowed Point at 9:07 of the second period of the game played Tuesday. He was assessed a major penalty and a game misconduct.

Lightning beat Predators in surprisingly nasty OT battle

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators are two teams that didn’t expect to find themselves out of the playoff picture in December. Both teams showed desperation during Tuesday’s tight, tenacious game, with the Lightning coming out on top with a 3-2 overtime win.

Lightning’s big guns come through; big opportunity brewing for Bolts

Tampa Bay’s top players ended up making the difference.

Victor Hedman began the scoring, maintaining his point-per-game pace (23 in 23). The biggest difference-makers were Nikita Kucherov (overtime game-winner, assist) and Steven Stamkos (two assists) in what was a feisty contest.

The Lightning ended a three-game losing streak with this win, and could be set for a surge with a heavy run of home games coming up. Seven of their next eight games take place in Tampa Bay, and they also play 10 of their next 12 at home.

Feel the hate

Is there some secret beef between the Predators and Lightning? These two teams were downright nasty at times on Tuesday night, to the point that you wonder if all of the pro wrestling cross-promotion caused unexpected feuds.

(Audience members shouting “shoot” gets some new meaning.)

There were fights, angry moments after whistles, and more than a few controversial moments. Predators fans and players weren’t happy with certain calls, expecting Erik Cernak to get the same sort of major penalty treatment that Ryan Johansen received for his elbow on Brayden Point.

However you feel about specific calls, it sure seemed like the two teams had hard feelings against each other:

Powerful Predators penalty kill

Considering Nashville’s dreadful 2018-19 power play, and the Lightning’s outstanding man advantage for some time now, you’d think the Predators might be toast during a game where Tampa Bay received a five-minute opportunity.

Instead, the Predators went 1-for-4 on the power play, and managed to keep Tampa Bay 0-for-3, which was even worse when you considering that major chance.

Goaltending factored into the not-so-explosive power plays, mind you, including Pekka Rinne making some impressive saves (including on Steven Stamkos on multiple PP chances). The Predators’ PK didn’t earn Nashville the win, but they’re a big reason why they managed a point.

Healthy return

After sitting for seven games as a healthy scratch, Kyle Turris also stood as a big reason why Nashville managed a point. Turris scored a goal and an assist for the Predators in his first game back, and generally created a lot of nice opportunities for the Preds.

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.

Lightning’s Point bloodied; Predators’ Johansen gets elbowing major

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(UPDATE: Johansen has been fined $5,000, the maximum allowable under the CBA.)

The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning don’t face each other very often, yet you’d almost think they were blood rivals based on some of the events so far during Tuesday’s game on NBCSN (stream here).

We’ve seen a fight, and then maybe a turning point moment during the second period.

The Lightning already held a 2-1 lead, quickly answering after the Predators tied things up 1-1, and it sure looked like things were about to get worse for Nashville.

Ryan Johansen caught Brayden Point with an elbow that bloodied the Lightning star, and officials whistled Johansen for a five-minute elbowing major. After deliberating via tablets, officials determined that a major was a valid call, and the lethal Lightning power play gained a big opportunity — although it was crucial to note that Point needed to get cleaned up with blood on his jersey.

The Predators showed serious moxie in killing the entire five-minute major penalty, and actually had some of the better opportunities, as they nearly scored a shorthanded goal.

It was an impressive display by the Predators’ PK, and a frustrating moment for the Lightning, as Jon Cooper noted during an in-game interview with Pierre McGuire. We’ll see if the Predators can rally around that strong kill to come back against the Lightning, as they want that to be more than just a confidence-booster.

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.

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.”