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Pressure is on for Lightning’s best team yet

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are in the difficult and often times unenviable position the Washington Capitals used to find themselves in.

An objectively outstanding team that is loaded with stars and wins a ton of regular season (and playoff) games but never really gets taken seriously as a great team because they are still lacking the one piece of hardware that great teams are ultimately measured by — the Stanley Cup.

If you are thinking about things rationally this should be a great position to be in because it means you are one of the elite teams in the league. It means you have a chance to compete for a championship every year and you know you are going to be right there in the spring as one of the last teams standing.

There should probably be 28 or 29 fanbases around the NHL that would have happily switched places with this team over the past four years.

But in sports we do not often to look at things rationally.

In sports we have a championship or bust mentality — especially with teams like this — and we tend to be harder on the great teams that get close and ultimately fall short than we are the teams that never get close to this level. It’s why Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals always took more heat and criticism for not winning a championship than some middle of the pack team that was never able to even consistently make the playoffs. It’s why Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau spent most of their time together in San Jose fighting off the choker and playoff underachiever label than being recognized as some of the best players of their generation.

It is the curse of expectation.

Because of that, until this group gets their names on the Stanley Cup there is always going to be that “yeah, but…” that follows them around.

Teams like this never really get the credit or recognition they deserve because one or two shots or games have gone against them at the worst possible time when all of the eye balls in the league are on them. It is almost as if everyone is waiting for them to fail instead of viewing them as one of the best teams of their era, which they absolutely are.

What has to make it all so frustrating for Lightning fans is just how close they have been with this current core. They have consistently been right on the threshold of a championship but always fallen just short while allowing a late postseason series lead to slip away. In 2015 they were up 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final before losing three games in a row. The next year they had a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final, with Game 6 at home, before losing two in a row to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last season they again had a 3-2 series lead in the conference final against the Capitals only to get shutout in Games 6 and 7.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning are in the top-three with the Penguins and Capitals when it comes to most regular season and postseason wins. The Penguins and Capitals have combined to win three of those four Stanley Cups. They have been the two obstacles standing in their way and keeping them from a championship.

All of that brings us to this year’s Lightning team, which just might be their best one yet.

Their 36 wins through their first 47 games are tied for the most of any team in the salary cap era, a mark that only the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks and 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks have matched. They are seven points better than they were at this same point last season when they ended the season with 113 points. They are currently on a 129-point pace this season, a mark that only three teams in NHL history have ever reached (the 1977-78 and 1978-79 Montreal Canadiens and the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings).

Their 191 goals are the second-most during that same era, trailing only the 199 the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators scored in their first 47 games. No other team ha scored more than 178 at this point in the season.

They have major award contenders at every position.

Nikita Kucherov is racing toward the Art Ross trophy and for the second year in a row will be in the MVP discussion. Victor Hedman is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy a year ago and currently possesses a better save percentage than he did a year ago.

This team is so great as currently constructed that the latter player missed a month of this season and they still went 12-3-0 during that stretch without him.

What makes the Lightning even better this season is the supporting cast around the four stars (Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, and Steven Stamkos — don’t forget about him) is even better.

Brayden Point has taken a massive leap in his development this season and gone from being a good top-line player to one of the top scorers in the league. With him they now have three of the league’s top-17 scorers, including two of the top-seven.

The depth around them up front is so good that when none of the three are on the ice the Lightning still control more than 53 percent of the shot attempts, more than 54 percent of the scoring chances, and outscore teams by a 39-31 margin during 5-on-5 play (numbers via Natural Stat Trick).

In other words, they still play like a top-five team in the NHL when none of their three best forwards are on the ice. Comically good stuff. They were still very good without any of those three on the ice a year ago, but not quite this good.

They have a full season of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line who has been even better than he was a year ago in his limited time with the team. Along with him, Mikhail Sergachev is starting to emerge and they finally have a healthy Anton Stralman back after he missed a significant portion of the first half of the season.

[Related: Surging Sergachev helps already loaded Lightning]

While they are dominant at 5-on-5 as a team, they also boast the league’s best special teams with the No. 1 power play unit and the sixth-best penalty killing unit. In every phase, at every level, they are better than everybody else in the league.

That is where the pressure for this team is going to come from.

They have been a “so close, but just short” team for four years now and the team they are putting on the ice this season is even better than any of those previous versions, and probably by a pretty significant amount.

Given that, and given how close they have been in recent years, there truly is going to be a “championship or bust” for this group.

If they finally break through and do it, no one will ever doubt them again and the reputation of the Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman core will forever be changed for the better.

If they fall short again, whether it is in the first round or the Cup Final, the doubt will only increase for a core that is mostly locked in place contractually for the foreseeable future. Whether it is fair or not, there is no margin for error this group. The expectation is definitely the Stanley Cup.

They once again have the team that just might be able to do it. They just need to … do 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.

WATCH LIVE: Sharks visit on Coyotes on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Seven games in 2019 have equated to seven straight wins for the San Jose Sharks, who own the longest active winning streak in the NHL.

The Sharks are doing so well that they’ve climbed into second place in the Pacific Divison and can take top spot if the first-place Calgary Flames lose to the Buffalo Sabres.

The Sharks come into the game having played on Tuesday, with Tomas Hertl scoring a hat trick to down the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2.

It might be time, then, for the Coyotes to capitalize.

Arizona has won three of its past four and sends Darcy Kuemper into the crease. Kuemper has won four straight starts

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: San Jose Sharks at Arizona Coyotes
Where: Gila River Arena
When: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Sharks-Coyotes stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

SHARKS
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonJoe Pavelski
Lukas RadilLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Evander Kane — Tomas Hertl — Joonas Donskoi
Melker KarlssonBarclay GoodrowKevin Labanc

Radim SimekBrent Burns
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson
Tim HeedJustin Braun

Starting goalie: Aaron Dell

COYOTES

Clayton KellerJordan WealChristian Fischer
Richard PanikDerek StepanVinnie Hinostroza
Alex GalchenyukNick CousinsConor Garland
Lawson CrouseMario KempeJosh Archibald

Oliver Ekman-LarssonNiklas Hjalmarsson
Jakob ChychrunIlya Lyubushkin
Jordan OesterleAlex Goligoski

Starting goalie: Darcy Kuemper

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Sharks look to stay perfect in 2019

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes. Coverage begins at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

2019 has been good to the Sharks. They’ve managed to play five of seven games on home ice, which means they haven’t had to travel too much, and they’ve been able to win every single one of their contests. They took down Colorado, Tampa, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Vegas, Ottawa, and Pittsburgh.

Their seven-game winning streak will be tested starting tonight, as the Sharks will begin a four-game road trip in Arizona. They’ll also head to Tampa, Florida and Washington.

“We’re a confident group,” forward Evander Kane said. “We feel if we show up to play and play our best game we have a good chance to win every night. We’re confident in that. This is how you continue to climb in the standings. You put wins together consecutively. We need to continue to do that because it’s real tight right now.”

This recent run has allowed the Sharks to climb into second place in the Pacific Division. They’re now one point behind the Flames for top spot, but Calgary still has a game in hand.

This hot streak started well before Jan. 1. San Jose has been the second-best team in the league since Dec. 2 (their 16-3-2 record trails only Tampa Bay). In those 21 games, the Sharks have received some balanced scoring from most of their top players.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have led the way, as they’ve accumulated 27 and 25 points respectively since then. Tomas Hertl, who had a hat trick against Pittsburgh last night, has 23 points, Kane has 21 points, and Joe Pavelski has 19 points.

“It’s just the balanced scoring,” said veteran Joe Thornton. “It seems like a lot of guys are going at the same time. I credit a lot of that to great defense, too. The defense is giving the pucks to forwards and they can go. The team is playing real well right now.”

The Sharks have also received some strong goaltending from Martin Jones. The 29-year-old has been between the pipes for six of the seven consecutive victories and he’s won each of his last eight decisions. He’s also given up two goals or fewer in five consecutive games. It’s incredible to think that he has just two regulation losses since Dec. 2.

Even though Jones has been terrific of late, he probably won’t start on a second consecutive night. So don’t be surprised if Aaron Dell gets the start against the Coyotes.

Chris Cuthbert (play-by-play) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Pro Niemi; Odd night for the Blues

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Three Stars

1. Antti Niemi

After floundering with the Stars and flopping briefly with the Penguins, it sure seemed like last season would be Niemi’s last in the NHL.

Niemi even played two forgettable games for the Panthers team he frustrated tonight, so you can forgive his former teammates for wondering where this guy was. (Stars management might be doing that, too, if they’re not cursing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for losing to the Lightning.)

Niemi set a new career-high with 52 saves against Florida, with only Mike Hoffman‘s Forsberg-like goal beating him.

That performance stands taller than some other great goalie performances that should get at least honorable mentions. Andrei Vasilevskiy pitched a 35-save shutout against Benn and those Stars. Laurent Brossoit continued his brilliant work as Winnipeg’s gem of a backup, making 43 out of 44 stops. But Niemi’s 52 saves fell one short of tying a franchise record for the NHL’s most storied franchise. Seems fair to give him the top spot.

Not bad for a guy who legitimately seemed to be done last season.

2. Mika Zibanejad

As much as the Rangers’ opponents from Carolina rank as a team to watch at the trade deadline, the Rangers are no slouches themselves in sell mode.

It would be surprising to see Zibanejad go in such a liquidation, at least if the Rangers don’t want this to be a lengthy rebuild. He’s a prime-age scorer, with Tuesday’s two goals and two assists pushing his season total to an impressive 41 points. Zibanejad only had 47 points all of last season, and 2015-16’s 51 represent a career-high, so he could really set a new bar for himself. The talent’s seemingly always been there, so it’s pretty exciting to see such growth, and it must be painful to compare his work to that of trade partner Derick Brassard.

Mats Zuccarello collected three assists in this one as well, including a truly brilliant one to set up one of Z’s goals. Zuccarello now has three goals and three assists for six points during a three-game run.

The Rangers really dominate the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden, apparently.

3. Viktor Arvidsson

Arvidsson was one of two players to collect a hat trick on “National Hat Day,” with Tomas Hertl being the other. Arvidsson gets the nod for two reasons: 1) one of Hertl’s three goals included an empty-netter and 2) Arvidsson managed a GWG in his efforts.

(Joe Thornton scored the game-winner in what was his 1,000th game with the Sharks.)

Some of those Arvidsson goals included some great moments from his teammates, much like Zibanejad was boosted by Zuccarello. You can see a great outlet pass from Mattias Ekholm and a falling helper from Ryan Johansen in the highlights of Nashville’s one-sided win against Washington.

Strange, tough night for St. Louis

The Blues lost in overtime to the Islanders, with Jordan Binnington suffering his first defeat. But that wasn’t what made this an unusual night.

Early in the game, Oskar Sundqvist continued his unlucky 2018-19 by losing his edge and falling into an on-ice official, needing help off of the ice. Luckily, he would come back later in the game.

It wasn’t the only unusual reaction between a Blues player and someone other than an Islanders player, as a trainer helped a struggling Zach Sanford to the bench:

Here’s hoping Sanford ends up OK. David Perron extended his point streak to 12 games, but that’s about where the good news ended for St. Louis on Tuesday.

One more great highlight

Click here for that Hoffman goal. It was pretty ridiculous.

Also ridiculous: Hertl’s effort on this tally. The Czech winger grew up idolizing Jaromir Jagr, so it must have felt great to emulate number 68 in overpowering Evgeni Malkin on his way to this tremendous goal:

Apparently Hertl’s hat-trick goal pushed him to 100 career tallies. So not a bad consolation prize for Hertl.

Factoids

Another sign that, yes, scoring is way up this season.

The Islanders are the first team since the 2011-12 Flyers to have eight players score at least 10+ goals through 45 games.

PHT’s Scott Billeck notes that Laurent Brossoit’s 26 saves in the second period set a new Jets franchise record for saves in a single period. So, yeah, Brossoit has a strong argument for a three stars nod, along with quite a few others from a busy Tuesday.

Scores

NYI 2 – STL 1 (OT)
NYR 6 – CAR 2
CBJ 4 – NJD 1
MTL 5 – FLA 1
DET 3 – ANA 1
NSH 7 – WSH 2
MIN 3 – LAK 2 (SO)
WPG 4 – VGK 1
TBL 2 – DAL 0
SJS 5 – PIT 2

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.

An appreciation of the underappreciated Rick Nash

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Rick Nash announced his retirement from the NHL on Friday, officially ending a 15-year career that was far better than it was ever given credit for being while it was happening.

He is a perfect example of how team success drives the narrative around an individual player, and just how difficult, if not impossible, it can be for one player to alter the path of an entire organization — especially in a sport like hockey where one player can never carry an entire team on their own.

When you look at what he actually did in the NHL, he was outstanding. He was one of the best goal-scorers of his generation and a constant force when he was on the ice. He could drive possession, he became one of the league’s most dangerous and effective penalty killers, and he had immense skill that produced some breathtaking plays with the puck, such as this goal that happened nearly 11 years to the day.

Still, his entire career seemed to be dogged by criticism for what he didn’t do, as opposed to what he was doing.

And what he was doing was scoring a hell of a lot of goals and at a level that few other players during his era ever reached.

He spent the first nine years of his career (and his best years in the NHL) stuck on a fledgling Columbus team that could barely get out of its own way and seemed completely incapable of building anything around him.

[Related: Concussion issues force Nash to retire from NHL]

Anytime a player is taken No. 1 overall (as Nash was in 2002) there is always going to be an expectation that they are going to be the turning point to help lead a franchise stuck at the bottom of the league out of the darkness they are in.

In the NBA, one superstar can do that because of how much they play and how much of an impact one player can make due to the size of the rosters and how much the best players handle the ball.

In the NFL, a quarterback can do that because of the importance of the position and the impact it has on every game.

But in the NHL the best players only play, at most, a third of the game. When they are on the ice the puck is probably on their stick for about a minute of actual game time … if that. That is not enough time to carry an entire team.

Not even a player like Connor McDavid is capable of lifting a team on his own.

Just consider what Nash did during his time in Columbus.

During his nine years there he scored 289 goals, a number that put him among the top-eight players in the entire NHL. That’s an average of more than 32 goals per season, and the only two years where he didn’t score at least 30 were his rookie season and the 2006-07 season when he scored 27 in 75 games.

He won a goal-scoring crown in his second year in the league at the age of 19. Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk (nine each) were the only players to have more 30-goal seasons during that stretch. In the end he did what was expected of him. The problem is that during those nine years there was nobody else on his team that was anywhere close to him, or anything close to being an impact player.

Only one other player in a Blue Jackets uniform scored more than 90 goals (R.J. Umberger scored 94) during that stretch, and only other other (David Vyborny) scored more than 80. With all due respect to Umberger and Vyborny, both of whom were solid NHL players, if they are the second and third most productive goal-scorers on your team over an entire decade then things are probably not going to go well for your team.

There was never anybody else that could help carry the load offensively.

For his career, he ended up tallying 437 goals, a number that was topped by only three players during his years in the NHL (Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla, and Patrick Marleau).

He was not only an outstanding player, he was one of the most underappreciated players of his era.

He was one of a handful of players from his era that were better than they were given credit for during their primes.

Among them…

Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau — These two were the foundation of the San Jose Sharks organization for more than a decade and both put together Hall of Fame worthy careers. The thing is, they spent most of their time together being more of a punchline because the Sharks were never able to get over the hump in the playoffs. As the best players on the team, they were often the ones wearing the target for the criticism when things went wrong in the playoffs.

By now you have probably seen the stat that was circulating around last week regarding Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin having the same number of points from the start of the 2005-06 season when they both entered the league. It was impressive, and awesome, and a testament to their dominance in the league.

What stood out to me was the fact that Thornton was third on that list. Despite those years all coming in the second half of his career when he should have been, in theory, significantly slowing down. He never really did. He just kept dominating.

As for Marleau, well, just consider that he has scored 72 postseason goals in his career. No player in the NHL has scored more than him during the duration of his career. Even if you take into account that his career started way before many active players, he is still in the top-four since the start of the 2005-06 season.

Tomas Vokoun — In the 10 years he spent as a starting goaile between 2002-03 and 2012-13 there were only four goalies in the NHL that appeared in at least 200 games and had a higher career save percentage than him — Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne. Vokoun wasn’t just underappreciated, he was legitimately one of the best and most consistent goalies of his era. There is an argument to be made that Luongo also falls in this category, but he’s been around long enough and accomplished enough that I think the league has started to appreciate him for how good he has been. But Vokoun never really got the recognition, mostly because he spent the bulk of his career as a starter stuck on a bad Florida Panthers team. The only three times he had an opportunity to play in the playoffs, he was just as outstanding as he was during the regular season.

During the 2003-04 postseason in Nashville he recorded a .939 save percentage in a six-game first-round series loss to a heavily favored Detroit Red Wings team. During that series he allowed two goals or less in four of the six games … winning only two of them. In 2012-13, when he was a backup to Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, he took over early in the first-round of that postseason and helped backstop the Penguins to the Eastern Conference Final with a .933 save percentage. That postseason run ended very similarly to his 2003 postseason by playing great for a team that could not give him any offensive support.

Patrik Elias — Elias’ career was fascinating because he spent the bulk of it playing in one of the worst eras ever for offense, on a team that was synonymous with defense, and yet … he was still one of the most productive players of his era. And everyone outside of New Jersey just kind of forgets that he existed. He played 1,200 games in the NHL, he topped 1,000 points, and he was a top-15 player in goals and total points during his career.

He is one of just 56 players in league history to have played in at least 1,200 games and record at least 1,000 points. Out of that group, 37 of them are already in the Hall of Fame and over the next decade there are probably quite a few more that will join them (Jaromir Jagr, Thornton, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Jarome Iginla).

Given all of that Elias had a borderline Hall of Fame career, especially when you factor in the fact he was a top player on two Stanley Cup winning teams, and he is mostly just kind of … forgotten.

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.