Flyers turn to winner Vigneault to snap championship drought

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VOORHEES, N.J. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning team that just flamed out in the first round of the playoffs is dotted with former New York Rangers who played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final:

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman, J.T. Miller all helped the Rangers to get within three wins of their first championship since 1994. Five years later, a new team and a stunning elimination. They were used to deeper runs in New York with Alain Vigneault running the show. He led the Rangers to the Cup Final in his first season and bumped the win total by eight in his second.

After a year out of coaching, Vigneault takes over a fallen Philadelphia Flyers franchise. He seems to expect a similar quick fix.

”I was looking for was an opportunity to win; an opportunity in the short term to win a Stanley Cup,” Vigneault said Thursday.

Vigneault also led the Vancouver Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final, is a former NHL coach of the year and will spend the summer as the head coach for Team Canada at the world championships.

”It’s unusual and difficult to find coaches like Alain,” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

Indeed, Vigneault has done it all on the bench except win the Stanley Cup and he joins a franchise mired in one of the longest championship droughts in the league. The Flyers haven’t won it all since 1975 or even played for the Stanley Cup since 2010. Even worse, they missed the playoffs this season and haven’t made it past the second round since 2012.

And he thinks the Flyers can win in the short term?

Maybe, because the talent is there: Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier all have some heavy miles on their skates but are still productive veterans. There’s still untapped potential in a group of promising 20-somethings that include Travis Sanheim, Oskar Lindblom, Shayne Gostisbehere and Nolan Patrick. All have shown flashes of stardom along with infuriating inconsistency.

”I can get them to be more consistent. The way that I prepare a team for games I believe permits a player to understand what he needs to do against that team to be successful,” Vigneault said.

Couturier will get an early peek at Vigneault’s system at next month’s world championships in Slovakia. So will Carter Hart, the 20-year-old rookie goalie who nearly carried the Flyers into the playoffs after his December call up. He won eight straight games and pushed the Flyers (37-37-8 for 82 points) to the verge of a wild card spot until they collapsed over the final two weeks.

The Flyers used a record eight goalies this season. Vigneault knows a true No. 1 should be enough to carry the load in a championship chase. Vigneault rode Henrik Lundqvist in New York to within three wins of a championship and Roberto Luongo had four playoff shutouts when the Canucks reached the Final in 2011.

”I was very fortunate to have maybe two Hall of Fame goaltenders,” Vigneault said. ”Maybe we have a young goaltender that’s got a tremendous amount of potential and might become one of the top goalies in the league.”

One thing Vigneault won’t do is ask former Flyers coach Dave Hakstol (fired in December) and former GM Ron Hextall (fired in November) for a scouting report on the team. Both men are part of his staff at worlds. Giroux, the Flyers captain, is the only player Vigneault has called.

Vigneault, who turns 58 in May, has coached 16 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens, Canucks and Rangers. His teams made the playoffs 11 times and he was named NHL coach of the year in 2006-2007 with Vancouver.

”Players look for direction. If you give a player and a team a path and you do this, you do it this way, you put in the time, you’re going to have success,” Vigneault said. ”You do the same thing with your team, they’re going to follow you.”

History suggests players will follow Vigneault. He took two teams in major hockey markets to the Final and did it in large part because of a hot goalie and an overachieving roster. The Rangers wore down because almost every series went the distance (four Game 7s) and Vigneault took them way behind their talent level.

Vigneault has an offensive superstar in Giroux (82 points) but Patrick (a former No. 2 pick) and van Riemsdyk have more name value than skill. No matter, the coach always pays the price in Philly: Vigneault is the fifth coach since the start of the 2013 season, and he’d like this commitment to last.

”You know what we have to do? We have to win,” he said.

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Lightning GM BriseBois not overreacting to playoff loss

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said Thursday he is not going to overreact to the Lightning’s historically quick postseason exit and he still has confidence in coach Jon Cooper.

After tying the NHL record for wins during the regular season, the perennial Stanley Cup contender became the first team in the expansion era to be swept in the first round of the playoffs after leading the league in points. Three of the four games against Columbus were decided by at least two goals.

”What really compounds the disappointment is that we didn’t play anywhere near our best hockey during the series. And now, the question is why? Why didn’t we play our best when it mattered the most,” BriseBois said.

”The reality is it’s not something that I’m going to be able to pinpoint to any one thing,” BriseBois added. ”I know it would make it a lot easier for all of us if we could have a clear narrative. We lost because of, fill-in the blank. The reality is it’s a lot more complex than that.”

The Lightning won 62 games, matching the league mark set by the 1995-96. While the players said they believe they are a team built for success in the playoffs, an inability to get back to the Stanley Cup Final the past four years suggests otherwise.

”Now is not the time to make excuses, it’s a time to show some humility,” BriseBois said. ”It’s the time for us to lick our wounds. Roll up our sleeves, get to work and focus on doing what we need to do so that next year we’re more successful.”

Cooper, in the final year of his contract, was given a multiyear extension on March 26.

”My faith in Coop has not waivered at all,” BriseBois said.

Tampa Bay had three players – Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point – score 40-plus goals. Kucherov had a league-leading 128 points, the most by any player since 1995-96 when Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux had 161 and teammate Jaromir Jagr had 149.

All three were mostly non-factors against the Blue Jackets.

Stamkos had one goal and one assist, and finished minus-8. Kucherov, suspended for Game 3 for a boarding penalty the previous game, picked up two assists and was minus-4. Point scored one goal and was minus-5.

”It’s just another opportunity wasted,” Stamkos said. ”We have all the players in place but at the end of the day you’re judged on winning championships. There’s no real words. We say a lot of things, but you have to go out on the ice and do it, and we didn’t do it.”

Tampa Bay scored 325 goals in the regular season – most by any team in 23 years – but was outscored 19-8 by the No. 8 seed Blue Jackets.

The first-round debacle was just the latest in a string of postseason disappointments. The Lightning held a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final before losing to Chicago in six games. In 2016 (Pittsburgh) and 2018 (Washington), Tampa Bay failed close out 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference finals.

This year’s collapse stung, too, because it not only came against a team the Lightning dominated during the regular season, but Columbus is also coached by John Tortorella, who was behind the bench for Tampa Bay’s only Stanley Cup championship in 2004.

”We put ourselves in this position because we didn’t meet our expectations,” Cooper said. ”I’m going to relish the moment when we’re all back here again and we have met those expectations as a group.”

WARNING SIGNS?

The Lightning had a tendency to fall behind during the regular season, posting 29 comeback wins, an NHL record.

”In a lot of those games we out-skilled out of those games,” left winger Alex Killorn said. ”But in the playoffs, there’s times where you’re not going to be able to skill your way out of it. I think just we have to play a more playoff mentality throughout the season. Build your way into playoffs.”

PLAYER MOVEMENT?

Point is a restricted free agent who is in line for a potential offer sheet. Defensemen Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn are all unrestricted free agents.

INJURIES

2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman (upper body) played in Games 1 and 2 after missing the final four regular season games but sat out the final two playoff games. … Stralman (lower body) never got on the ice. … Killorn played Game 4 with a slight MCL tear that won’t require surgery.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins’ playoff exit was two years in the making

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The Pittsburgh Penguins loss to the New York Islanders was no fluke.

It was a result they earned and was due to them being outplayed and soundly beaten in pretty much every phase of the game by a Islanders team that looked faster, crisper, and smoother.

It was also not the result of something that simply happened overnight.

On the off day between their losses in Games 3 and 4, defender Justin Schultz nailed a big part of the problem when he said this: “Our identity has changed over the years. We play fast and get the puck up quick. That’s what we do best. We haven’t done that this series.”

But when did it change, and more importantly, why did it change?

It has taken the Penguins two years to reach the point where they needed to wait until Game 81 of the regular season to simply make the playoffs, and then could not even scratch out a single win once they got there.

To find when it all began you can probably go back to May 28, 2017.

At the time, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions and just 24 hours away from beginning another Cup Final series against the Nashville Predators that they would win in six games, becoming the first team in a generation to successfully repeat as champions. Their recipe and identity was clear. They played fast, they didn’t let anything throw them off their game, and coach Mike Sullivan had driven home a “Just Play” mantra that became the calling card of their 2016 championship run. It applied to just about any situation.

An injury to a significant player? Just play.

Don’t like a call that was or was not made on the ice? Just play.

Facing some adversity and down in a series? Just. Play.

In the years between their 2009 and 2016 championships the Penguins had become a deeply flawed team that was short on depth around its superstars and had rapidly developed a tendency to unravel whenever things didn’t go their way. They were almost like petulant children that would lose their composure when calls went against them and become almost infatuated with responding to even the slightest physical altercation. They reached rock bottom in this regard during the 2012 and 2013 postseason losses to the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins when they seemed to be playing a game where hits and responses were worth more than goals.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Starting in 2015, general manager Jim Rutherford started to reshape the team into something different.

He found the right depth players to go around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, and he made a series of trades and call-ups from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to make the team faster and more skilled throughout the lineup. Combined with Sullivan’s mid-season takeover in 2015, it was a perfect storm that allowed them overwhelm opponents and catch fire sometime around February.

They never slowed down on their way to a championship.

While the 2016-17 season wasn’t quite as dominant and had to rely on goaltending a little more in the playoffs, the same formula was still in play.

Despite all of the winning, Rutherford was still unsatisfied with something.

He was unsatisfied with the way his star players were being treated physically. In each of those postseasons the Penguins had to go through opponents that were not shy about targeting their stars. Crosby’s postseason run-ins with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are well documented, and they had two consecutive postseason encounters with Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals. In the Eastern Conference Final that season there were several incidents against the Ottawa Senators that drew the team’s ire.

The day before the 2017 Stanley Cup Final began, Rutherford offered a look into where the team was going to be headed when he sounded off in an interview with Ken Campbell of The Hockey News. This is the key part:

“I hear year after year how the league and everyone loves how the Penguins play,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “‘They play pure hockey and they skate.’ Well, now it’s going to have to change and I feel bad about it, but it’s the only way we can do it. We’re going to have to get one or two guys…and some of these games that should be just good hockey games will turn into a sh—show. We’ll go right back to where we were in the ’70s and it’s really a shame.”

Emphasis added.

“We’re going to have to get one or two guys.”

He doubled down on it just days after the team won the Stanley Cup.

“We are going to try to add a player or two that maybe we can have more protection in our lineup. That’s not that easy because [coach Mike Sullivan] likes to roll four lines and you’ve got to plug a guy in that can play on a regular basis, but hopefully that’s what we can do.”

That was the moment they started down the wrong path. Suddenly, a team that had become defined by playing through things and not responding was going to get “one or two guys” to … respond. The Penguins hadn’t even finished their run at the top of the league as champions when they made the decision to start slowly deviating off of the path that got them there, all in the name of retribution and the misguided idea of “deterrence.”

On draft night that year, the Penguins flipped their first-round pick and center Oskar Sundqvist to the St. Louis Blues for Ryan Reaves and a second-round pick, a trade that has turned out to be a significant loss for the Penguins in more ways than one, and it was a bad idea from the start. Not only did they move back 20 spots in the draft, but Sundqvist has turned into a solid third-line center for the Blues (a position the Penguins spent two years and countless assets trying to fill) while Reaves clearly never fit in with the Penguins’ style of play.

Sullivan barely used him, it shortened the team’s bench, and he was ultimately traded halfway through the season in the massive and complicated deal for Derick Brassard.

The problem with that sequence wasn’t necessarily the trade itself, but what it represented.

What it represented was a philosophical shift from the recipe that worked, and there is nothing that has happened since that trade that has put them back on track.

Pretty much every significant roster move the Penguins have made since then (and there have been A LOT of them) has revolved around getting bigger, stronger players, especially on the blue line where Jamie Oleksiak, Jack Johnson, Erik Gudbranson were the significant additions over the past year. It resulted in a defense that lacks mobility, doesn’t move the puck well, and has simply zapped them of a lot of their transition game. Add that to the departures of forwards like Carl Hagelin and Conor Sheary and the team no longer has the speed and skating advantage that it used to have over its opponents.

The most confusing thing about all of it is the roster construction and many of the moves seem — emphasis on seem — to be at odds with the way the coach has wanted the team to play from the day he arrived behind the bench. I know nothing of the working relationship between Rutherford and Sullivan and whether they remain on the same page as to how the team is built, but the optics of it all just seem strange.

They paid a significant price for Reaves, and the coach didn’t play him. The general manager championed the signing of Johnson all season, and despite playing in all 82 regular season games was deemed to be not worth a roster spot in the first game of the playoffs. A team that wants to play fast and beat teams in transition and with puck possession, suddenly has an inconsistent transition and possession game because the players on the back end can’t make the necessary plays to feed it. And that doesn’t even get into general manager’s fascination with trying to even the score with Wilson in Washington after he knocked Zach Astron-Reese out of the playoffs a year ago (something that ended up getting Oleksiak injured).

Make no mistake, there were other factors at play throughout this season and the playoffs that produced this early exit. The forwards, as a whole, don’t help out enough in the defensive zone. The Islanders did a great job shutting down Crosby and Jake Guentzel. Letang and Schultz, the two defenders on the roster that can still play close to the Penguins’ style, each had a bad series.

But a bad series for individual players happens, and sometimes they are even understandable and defensible because even the best players have bad stretches.

What is not understandable and defensible is willingly taking yourself away from something that worked. That is what the Penguins did, and it is a big part of why their season ended up going the way it did.

The moves they make this summer will tell us a lot as to what they learned from it.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Lightning limp into Game 4 without Hedman, Stralman

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are facing a potential sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC; Live stream), and they’re going to have to find a way to win without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

Head coach Jon Cooper announced that Hedman and Stralman are out, while Alex Killorn is a game-time decision. Of course, the biggest lineup note is that Nikita Kucherov is back in the mix after sitting out Game 3 thanks to his one-game suspension, but these are big absences on the defensive side.

Via The Athletic’s Joe Smith, the Lightning will continue to roll with:

Mikhail SergachevDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnJan Rutta

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

In a detailed, fantastic piece for The Athletic (sub required), Alison Lukan detailed how the Blue Jackets’ forecheck (by way of a 1-2-2 setup) has been giving the Lightning fits so far in this Round 1 series.

“(We are) trying to find ways to limit their opportunities through their speed and their skill,” Brandon Dubinsky said. “That’s making sure we play disciplined and stay above the puck. When you go, it’s about not getting beat up the ice, and if (a Lightning player) moves the puck and your partner goes, you have to make sure you get back and get ahead of that guy and reload for him.”

Earlier in Round 1, much was made about Hedman being on the ice for some glaring Blue Jackets goals, particularly a David Savard goal that was key in Columbus’ Game 1 comeback. It was tough to shake the impression that injury issues limited Hedman’s mobility, and the big Swede missing big games only strengthens that possibility.

Yet, as much as Hedman’s missed on the defensive side, his absence really hurts the Lightning’s ability to break Columbus’ system with crisp, clean passes (and also the ability to skate the puck up the ice, when that makes sense).

The Hedman loss stings, as you’d frankly expect when a team is missing a Norris-level defenseman. It also might push someone useful like Sergachev a little out of their (or Cooper’s) comfort zone.

On the bright side, Lukan points out that Kucherov isn’t just a great weapon for Tampa Bay in the offensive zone, but is also one of the Lightning’s best players when it comes to the transition game.

Heading into Game 4, the Lightning played into typical cliches by talking about taking things “one period at a time,” and there might be some wisdom within the well-worn words. More than anything else, the Lightning could really benefit from starting Tuesday’s contest with a lead, preferably an early one. If Columbus is chasing a score, the Blue Jackets might be a little bit more willing to “cheat” or get too aggressive, potentially opening up lanes and other opportunities for the Lightning to really get rolling.

Still, between the Blue Jackets’ commitment to clogging things up, officials generally putting away their whistles when it comes to obstruction, and Sergei Bobrovsky‘s bank-account-fattening brilliance, Columbus is unlikely to make this easy on the Lightning. Not having Hedman, Stralman, and possibly Killorn only makes the mountain taller.

The Lightning hope to avoid being swept by Columbus Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC (Live stream)

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.

Blue Jackets – Lightning provide first goal, fight of playoffs

After a high-scoring 2018-19 regular season, the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs are off to a fast start.

The Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning are setting the tone in Game 1. About three minutes into the contest, Dan Girardi was whistled for illegal hit to the head on his former Rangers teammate Brandon Dubinsky, which inspired something you probably didn’t expect this soon: the first fight of the postseason.

Check out the hit and fight here:

The Blue Jackets ended up getting a two-minute power play advantage from that ensuing fracas, but it really just started the bleeding for Columbus. Alex Killorn snagged the puck from Seth Jones, opening up a breakaway and a shorthanded goal, the first goal of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can watch that video in the clip above this post’s headline.

Things didn’t get any better for the Blue Jackets from that 1-0 goal. Anthony Cirelli made it 2-0 on a goal Sergei Bobrovsky would want back, while Yanni Gourde‘s deflection on a 3-0 goal was something Bob really had no chance on.

So, two-out-of-three goals weren’t Bob’s bad, but he had some other shaky moments, and the conventional wisdom that the Blue Jackets will need brilliant goaltending to steal games from the Bolts continues to hold.

It begs the question: will the Blue Jackets also provide another first for this postseason: the first goalie change?

Game 2 of Blue Jackets-Lightning is Friday, April 12, at 7 p.m. ET on CNBC

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.