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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: Flyers visit Lightning on NBCSN

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Since firing head coach Dave Hakstol, the Flyers are 3-1-0 under interim coach Scott Gordon. All four games were decided by one goal. Gordon’s Flyers debut behind the bench coincided with the NHL debut of goalie prospect Carter Hart, who has played in three of those four games.

The Flyers enter Thursday right points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for third in the Metropolitan Division. They were exactly eight points back of third place in the division last season after the Christmas Break. They went 27-13-6 the rest of the way and finished third in the division to make the playoffs.

Tampa is the hottest team in the league at 10-0-1 during the month of December. The last team to go a full calendar month without a regulation loss was the Blue Jackets in December of 2016 (14-0-0) en route to recording the 2nd-longest winning streak in NHL history (16 games). Their 58 points through 37 games are their most in franchise history, two points more than they had through 37 games last season when they also set a franchise record.

Captain Steven Stamkos has been red hot with 10 goals in his last seven games. He lit the lamp twice on Saturday to mark his 10th career 20-goal campaign. That ties Martin St. Louis for the 2nd-most in team history and trails only Vincent Lecavalier (12).

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Philadelphia Flyers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Thursday, Dec. 27, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Flyers-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

FLYERS
James van RiemsdykClaude GirouxTravis Konecny
Wayne SimmondsSean CouturierJakub Voracek
Scott LaughtonNolan PatrickMichael Raffl
Oskar LindblomPhil VaroneDale Weise

Ivan ProvorovTravis Sanheim
Shayne GostisbehereRobert Hagg
Andrew MacDonaldRadko Gudas

Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth

LIGHTNING
Ondrej Palat – Steven Stamkos – Yanni Gourde
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony Cirelli J.T. Miller
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghAnton Stralman
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

Rick Peckham (play-by-play) and Brian Boucher (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Flyers-Lightning from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

A new episode of the critically-acclaimed Road To The NHL Winter Classic™ docuseries, which takes viewers inside the dressing rooms and homes of the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks as they prepare to meet in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1., will debut on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, leading into coverage of Flyers-Lightning on NBCSN. An encore presentation will air at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN, immediately following coverage of Flyers-Lightning.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Brayden Point is Lightning’s latest steal

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Even though it has not yet resulted in a championship for this current core, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL’s elite teams for more than four years now.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season only the Washington Capitals have won more regular season games, while they have reached the NHL’s final four in three of the past four seasons. The one year they didn’t reach that point (2016-17) injuries to several key players derailed their season and just barely kept them out of the playoffs. Sandwiched around that one tough-luck year was a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a pair of Eastern Conference Final appearances that resulted in Game 7 losses to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and Washington in 2018).

That success — and it is success — is no accident and is the result of an incredible front office that has consistently stacked the roster with top-tier offensive talent.

After their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, they are once again near the top of the NHL standings and looking like they should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this spring.

Like most contending teams they had some good fortune when it came to being bad at just the right time to land a couple of franchise-changing talents at the top of the draft.

They selected Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008 and he has been everything they could have hoped for him to be as a front-line center and franchise player.

The very next year they picked Victor Hedman, one of the most complete and well-rounded defenders in the world, with the No. 2 overall pick.

But other than defender Slater Koekkoek and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (selected 10th and 19th overall respectively in 2012) there is not another player on the current roster that the Lightning used one of their own first-round picks on. The rest of the roster has been assembled through blockbuster trades (Mikhail Sergachev — who was acquired for former third overall pick Jonathan DrouinJ.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan), free agent signings (Anton Stralman), or later round draft steals.

When it comes to the latter, they seem to have found another one in 22-year-old forward Brayden Point.

Point has been one of the Lightning’s best players this season and after another three-point effort in Sunday’s win is now up to 31 points in 24 games this season.

Following a breakout performance in 2017-18 that saw him finish with 32 goals and 66 total points he is looking like he is on track to smash both numbers. In his past six games alone he has eight goals and 12 total points. That run includes five multi-point games, including that incredible performance in Pittsburgh when he scored three power play goals in only 91 seconds of game-time.

[Related: Brayden Point scores hat trick in 91 seconds]

The Lightning found him in the third-round of the 2014 draft after 78 other players had been picked. Of all the players taken in that draft class, only seven of them have collected more points than he has, while only one of those players (Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson) was taken outside of the first-round. If you go as far as the top-18 point producers from that draft class only three of them were selected after the 25th overall pick.

For the Lightning to get a legitimate top-line player in the third-round in that class is a tremendous find.

It is also not the first time they have done it over the past few years in building this current roster.

Let’s just look at the rest of their core.

  • Nikita Kucherov was a second-round draft pick, No. 58 overall, in 2011 and is one of only two players from that class to have already topped the 350-point mark for his career. Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 overall pick, is the other. He and Kucherov are separated by the slimmest of margins for the top spot from that class when it comes to point production, while Kucherov is one of just four players in the top-15 that year to be taken after the first round. One of those four players is…
  • Ondrej Palat, who is the ninth-leading scorer from that class. The Lightning found him in the seventh-round with the 208th overall selection. That is two of the top-10 scorers in one draft class going to one team, and that team did not use a first-round pick on either one of them.
  • The Lightning signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent in March, 2011. Of all the players taken in the 2010 draft class (where he should have been selected), Johnson’s 277 points would place him ninth among that group. All eight players ahead of him were first-round draft picks, while only two of them (Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th overall, and Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th overall) were taken after the 15th pick.
  • Yanni Gourde, after finishing sixth in the Calder Trophy voting a year ago, is nearly a point-per-game player through the first quarter of his second season and has already shown enough to convince the team to give him a long-term contract extension.

Including Point, that is five pretty significant players that have all outperformed their draft positions. That is exactly what should pop in your mind when you hear someone referred to as a “steal.”

This kind of analysis can be difficult because there are always a ton of variables as to why a prospect succeeds (or, as the case may be, does not succeed). Maybe it is getting picked in the right environment, or going to the right team, or just getting the right opportunity with the right linemates. Or maybe it is sometimes just a little bit of dumb luck.

There is also a sort of chicken-or-egg element to all of this where you have to consider how much of it is player scouting, and how much of it is player development.

For example, if a team like Tampa knew how good some of these prospects were going to turn out to be, they probably would have taken them sooner in the draft. In other words, if the Lightning knew Nikita Kucherov was going to be — arguably — the best player from his draft class, they probably would have taken him with the 27th pick instead of Vladislav Namestnikov and not given every other team in the league an opportunity to take him instead. And it’s not that Namestnikov turned out to be a bad player, he just hasn’t been Kucherov. They took three other player in that class before Palat. Like everyone else, they completely passed on Johnson and Gourde in their draft years.

So development and coaching (and luck) is also a factor.

But there is one common trait that all of these players share that point to smart drafting by the Lightning.

They are all smaller forwards (or at least what would be considered “undersized), and they were all wildly productive in their pre-NHL careers compared to the rest of their peers in their respective draft years.

Johnson, Gourde, and Point are all among the smallest players in the league, while Kucherov (listed at 5-11, 178) and Palat (5-11, 180) aren’t exactly mountains out there on the ice.

And what about the production? After being a better than point-per-game player for his first three years in the Western Hockey League, Johnson ended up finishing second in scoring in 2010-11 (one point off the lead) and was the league’s leading goal-scorer the year the Lightning signed him.

Gourde won the QMJHL scoring title (by 23 points!) the year before he signed with the Lightning.

Point was a top-15 scorer in the WHL in his draft year when he slid to the third-round.

The Lightning have made a habit of doing this over the years, and it’s not just with these players that have stuck and become key parts of their team. Jonathan Marchessault, now one of the league’s best forwards, spent some time in the Tampa organization with some modest success before blossoming in Florida and Vegas.

Cory Conacher gave the Lightning some strong play during the 2012-13 season before he was later flipped to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for Ben Bishop, who would go on to be an excellent starting goalie for several years in Tampa.

In the end there are a lot of factors that worked out here for the Lightning to be able to assemble all of this talent. They have probably been a little fortunate to have some of these players fall into their laps when they did. But they also clearly targeted the right traits (production, skill), found players that were overlooked by other teams for what were probably the wrong reasons, and then put them in great situations where they could succeed in the NHL.

The result is one heck of a team that is a Stanley Cup contender every single season.

Now they just have to get a little bit of luck on their side when it comes to the playoffs to actually get this core its championship.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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: Lightning host Blackhawks on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Improvement has been there, but there’s plenty of work to do for new Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton. Since the 0-6-2 slump that led to Joel Quenneville’s firing, Chicago is 2-3-2 under the new bench boss, which has featured the team’s top line providing a big offensive push.

In Colliton’s seven games behind the bench, Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have scored six goals and recorded 16 points. The rest of the Blackhakws have totaled six goals and 20 points.

“If we play them together, they’ve got to produce. But sometimes when you spread them out, no one produces,” Colliton explained about putting the three together. “By loading them up, it puts some pressure on them. But hopefully they play so well, it doesn’t matter who has the puck — they’re making plays, they break through anyway, no matter who they’re playing against. That’s what we ask of them, and so far they’re coming through for us.”

The Lightning beat the Florida Panthers Wednesday to move to within two points of the top spot in the NHL. The dynamic offense scored seven goals for the third time this season, keeping them atop the league with a 3.73 goals per game average.

Goaltender Louis Domingue has made five starts since Andrei Vasilevskiy broke his foot last week. Tampa has won three of those games with the netminder posting a .939 even strength save percentage.

“He’s winning hockey games for us,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “[H]e’s given us a chance to win games and he’s played well.”

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Friday, November 23rd, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon Saad – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Nick SchmaltzArtem AnisimovAlex DeBrincat
Alexandre FortinDavid KampfDominik Kahun
Chris KunitzLuke JohnsonMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithGustav Forsling
Erik GustafssonBrent Seabrook
Brandon ManningJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

LIGHTNING
Yanni GourdeSteven StamkosJ.T. Miller
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Louis Domingue

Rick Peckham (play-by-play) and Brian Engblom (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Blackhawks-Lightning from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

WATCH LIVE: Sabres host Lightning on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Buffalo Sabres at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

For years, the Tampa Bay Lightning have chased a second Stanley Cup (and first with Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Nikita Kucherov as their main stars). Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres have mainly chased competency.

Both teams seem like they’re heading nicely toward their goals. The Lightning just saw a four-game winning streak end, and with a 12-4-1 record (25 points), they lead the Eastern Conference and rank second in the NHL.

The Sabres have won three of their last four games, placing them at 9-6-2 for 20 points. Entering Tuesday’s action, Buffalo currently holds the East’s second wild-card spot.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

While the Lightning combine Stamkos-Kucherov with Brayden Point‘s impressive second line, the Sabres have enjoyed great work from Jack Eichel. Almost as importantly, they’ve seen marked improvements in various areas of the game.

Eichel vs. Stamkos/Point should be fun, and fans can also get a look at Rasmus Dahlin, who’s made a smooth transition for Buffalo after becoming the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft. This game should be an interesting barometer for the Sabres, as they face one of the league’s clearest powerhouses.

[Extended preview for Tuesday’s game]

What: Tampa Bay Lightning at Buffalo Sabres
Where: KeyBank Center
When: Tuesday, November 13th, 7:30 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

J.T. Miller — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Yanni Gourde — Brayden Point — Tyler Johnson

Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph

Danick Martel — Cedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor Hedman — Dan Girardi

Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak

Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Louis Domingue

Sabres

Jeff Skinner — Jack Eichel — Sam Reinhart

Vladimir SobotkaEvan RodriguesJason Pominville

Conor ShearyCasey MittelstadtKyle Okposo

Zemgus GirgensonsJohan LarssonTage Thompson

Jake McCabeRasmus Ristolainen

Marco ScandellaZach Bogosian

Nathan Beaulieu — Rasmus Dahlin

Starting goalie: Carter Hutton

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.