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How Lightning keep coming up just short

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Let’s have a discussion about the Tampa Bay Lightning, shall we?

On one hand, they have recently been one of the NHL’s most successful teams.

They have reached at least the Eastern Conference Final in three of the past four seasons, and that includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. The one year they did not reach the conference final during this run they missed the playoffs by a single point in a year where they were decimated by injuries, including a crushing one to their top player — Steven Stamkos — that sidelined him for almost all of the season.

By any definition this is a wildly successful organization.

They are well run by a smart, innovative front office that has exploited a lot of areas where other teams have had blind spots (the Lightning do not shy away from undersized forwards; they are not afraid to draft players from Russia).

They have one of the best coaches in the NHL in Jon Cooper, who has won at every single level, winning championships in the USHL and AHL, and then coaching in a Cup Final.

They have great players all over the lineup including two of the top forwards in the league (Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov), an elite No. 1 defenseman (Victor Hedman), and a Vezina Trophy finalist (Andrei Vasilevskiy).

They have a steady pipeline of young talent that keeps coming through the system to give them a deep, talented roster.

They are not afraid to go all in and make a big move to add to their roster at the deadline.

They win a lot of games and go deep in the playoffs. There is a lot to be said for all of this.

Yet, even with all of that it still kind of feels like it has all been a somewhat disappointing run because they keep coming up just a little bit short.

Maybe “disappointing” is too strong of a word because it is damn hard to keep consistently reaching the final four every year. As I wrote a few days ago when talking about the Capitals having to once again face their postseason demons, sports is ultimately a story of failure. Championships are hard to come by and even getting within a stone’s throw of one is an incredible challenge. It is not necessarily a failure to lose in the Cup Final or lose in the conference final ever year.

But it still feels like there has been a big opportunity missed here to get a championship.

What makes it seem like such a big missed opportunity for the Lightning is the way they keep falling short in these situations, completely falling apart and going out with a whimper when they seem to be in control of a series.

Let’s start with this year’s loss in the Eastern Conference Final to the Capitals.

After falling into an 0-2 series hole by dropping the first two games on home ice, the Lightning roared back with three consecutive wins to seemingly take control of the series, sitting just one win shy of going back to the Final.

They not only failed to get that one win, they failed to score a goal in the two games that followed, losing by a combined score of 7-0. In the process they were completely outplayed, outclassed, and thoroughly dominated by the Capitals in pretty much every phase of the game. Prior to that meltdown the Lightning were 11-4 in this year’s playoffs (8-2 in the first two rounds, including a rather convincing thumping of a really good Boston Bruins team) after finishing the regular season as the top seed in the Eastern Conference. To call it an underwhelming exit based on everything that preceded it would be an understatement.

If that script sounds familiar it’s probably because it is nearly identical to what happened to them in 2016. After winning back-to-back games to take a 3-2 series lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Lightning returned home for Game 6 with a chance to clinch what would have been a second consecutive trip to the Cup Final. Instead, they came out on home ice and completely laid an egg, falling behind 3-0 through two periods and putting themselves in a hole they could not dig out of. They were outscored 7-3 in the final two games of that series.

In the 2015 Cup Final, the Lightning won two of the first three games against the Chicago Blackhawks. They then proceeded to score just two goals for the remainder of the series, dropping three games in a row to lose the series.

The common denominator in all of those late series collapses is an offense that just completely vanishes with the season and series on the line. When that happens the focus always shifts to the team’s top players, and in this case that would be Stamkos and Kucherov.

Let’s start with Stamkos, who has now played in six career Game 7s and, well, the numbers are not kind.

Harsh … but fair.

Things are not much better for Kucherov who has zero points and only seven shots on goal in four career Game 7s.

I am not a fan of making big picture judgements about players based on individual games or even individual playoff series’ because there is a lot of times a lot of noise and randomness there, and it’s not like these two players haven’t performed at other times in the playoffs. All playoff games are big games. All playoff games are pressure situations.

Among active players that have appeared in at least 50 playoff career playoff games Kucherov has the second-highest goals per game average in the league, trailing only some guy named Ovechkin.

Stamkos’ overall playoff production drops a bit from his normal regular season numbers, but it is not a huge drop and he is still very productive overall.

But you can not hide from those numbers in Game 7s. They are rough, and if you extend it to potential elimination games (games where either the Lightning are facing elimination or can knock out an opponent) he has just five goals in 20 such games. When the team not only doesn’t win, but also bows out the way they have those numbers are going to be talked about.

The frustrating thing about this there really isn’t anything the Lightning can do about it.

At least, there is nothing they should do about it. This isn’t a situation that calls for drastic changes. This isn’t something that requires an overhaul of the team or its core or the way it operates or the way it plays. The worst thing they can do is overreact and conclude that they are doing something wrong. It is obvious the team is good. The team has shown it is capable of going deep in the playoffs and making a serious run at a championship. When you get to Game 7 of the Conference Final or five or six games deep into the Stanley Cup Final you are often times literally just a single shot, call, or bounce away.

Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes it does not.

If there is a lesson to be learned here it should be taken from the Capitals themselves because for years they were the team sitting in the Lightning’s current position (only not quite as good because they were not even going as deep in the playoffs as the Lightning have) of consistently coming up just short in every painful way imaginable no matter how great the team was. The parallels are striking, right down to having one of this generations top goal-scorers. At times the Capitals made some philosophical mistakes in the way they played, and maybe a coaching blunder or two (hello Dale Hunter and Adam Oates era), but they stuck with their superstars. They stuck with the players that kept getting them close and believed that eventually things would go their way.

They finally are going their way.

Until that happens for the Lightning, though, they are going to be stuck facing criticism for not being able to get the job done and missing a big opportunity.

The Capitals are in the process of rewriting their story.

Now the Lightning have replaced them in the “you were so close, how did you lose this?” discussion.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final 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.

PHT’s Three Stars: Lightning power play stays hot in Game 3 win

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1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

Following a tough first two games of the series, Vasilevskiy bounced back in Game 3 with a 36-save performance during a 4-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He was peppered all night, with 21 of the 36 shots he faced coming off the sticks of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Lightning now trail the Capitals 2-1 in the series with Game 4 Thursday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in D.C.

2nd Star: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

Hedman had a hand in three of Tampa’s four goals with a goal and two assists in Game 3. He also led all Lightning players with 25:08 of ice time. After assisting on both power play goals to open the scoring, he made good on a sweet Nikita Kucherov pass to extend their lead to 3-0.

3rd Star: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa power play, as it has in this series, was cooking in Game 3 and Stamkos got the scoring rolling with his NHL-best fifth goal with the man advantage. Barely two minutes into the second period, he would pick up his second point of the night with a secondary assist on Kucherov’s seventh of the playoffs.

[Lightning ride three-goal second period in 4-2 win]

Highlight of the Night: This Stamkos goal was quite a rocket:

Factoid of the Night:

Wednesday’s schedule: Winnipeg Jets at Vegas Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

————

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.

Lightning ride three-goal second period in 4-2 win

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The list of things the Tampa Bay Lightning needed to do to avoid falling behind 0-3 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals was getting long.

As PHT’s James O’Brien pointed out on Tuesday, improved performances from Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in terms of puck possession would’ve been a start.

Nikita Kucherov finding the back of the net for the first time in the series would also help.

And perhaps most importantly, getting an outing from Andrei Vasilevskiy that was reminiscent of those that made him a Vezina Trophy finalist this year.

Stamkos stepped up his game with a 60% CF%, Vasilevskiy was solid, and the Lightning checked enough of the boxes elsewhere to get themselves back into the series, defeating the Capitals 4-2 in Game 3.

Hedman’s 5-on-5 game still needs some work, but No. 77 scored his first goal of the playoffs and added two helpers so no one will be complaining too much.

Kucherov got his first of the series, scoring on a one-timer on the power play.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Lightning power play stays hot in Game 3 win]

And Vasilevskiy looked much less fatigued than he did in the first two games, where he allowed 10 goals in five periods of play and never eclipsed a .850 save percentage.

Vasilevskiy had never lost three straight playoff games, and he didn’t start a new trend on Tuesday, steering aside 35-of-37 shots he faced.

He had to be particularly good late in the game after Evgeny Kuznetsov (no surprise) found paydirt from a dirty angle for his sixth point in the series with Washington’s net empty.

Tampa benefited from a three-goal outburst in the second period. Kucherov netted on the power play, Hedman found a fairly wide-open net to shoot at, and Brayden Point provided a late marker to give the Bolts a 4-1 edge through 40 minutes.

Washington didn’t have much of the magic they found in abundance in Tampa, although their possession numbers showed they controlled the majority of the shot share.

One now has to wonder how the Caps will manage Backstrom’s injury going forward.

There’s an argument that they could have given him the night off on Tuesday to promote further healing with the team holding a healthy 2-0 lead series lead. We’ll see what happens for Game 4 Thursday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Capitals certainly aren’t panicking at 2-1, but they need to be wary of their own ugly history when winning the first two games on the road (they’re 0-2 in a series where they do that). If Backstrom, one of the league’s best set-up men, can go and be effective, he can only help.

A side note: Home-ice advantage is a myth.

The Caps are 7-1 on the road in the playoffs and 3-4 at Capital One Arena. Tampa, meanwhile, improved to 4-1 away from AMALIE Arena.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Lightning should take training wheels off Sergachev

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From the bold to the stodgy, just about every NHL coach feels skittish about trusting young players. That’s especially true when it comes to defensemen.

Sometimes it’s better to roll the dice with talent rather than going with a seemingly “safe” choice that might instead boil down to familiar failures. Down 2-0 in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final to the Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper might need to bite the bullet.

He really should consider unleashing Mikhail Sergachev. That’s especially true if the Bolts find themselves down in Game 3 (and beyond), but you could make a reasonable argument that the 19-year-old deserves more reps even when it’s 0-0 or Tampa Bay is in the lead.

No doubt, there are risks.

[Lightning have much to ponder heading into Game 3]

Most obviously, he’s just 19. Even his proponents will admit that Sergachev still has things to learn. The Capitals aren’t going to be a kind tutor.

It’s also tricky if Cooper’s especially rigid when it comes to handedness for his top two pairings. Sergachev shoots left, much like Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, who join right-handed shot Anton Stralman as the Lightning’s three most prominent all-around options. (Dan Girardi rounds out that group as a righty; Braydon Coburn pairs with Sergachev as two lefties on the bottom pairing.)

Cooper hasn’t really given Sergachev a ton of “trial by fire” tests, either. During the regular season, Sergachev generated 40 points despite averaging a meager 15:22 TOI. Those minutes were arguably micromanaged, as he began a whopping 70 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.

Sergachev’s possession numbers were strong, but again, it was a cushy assignment. That trend continued into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as Sergachev’s overall playoff numbers are lofty, and he’s one of the few blueliners who look good so far through the first two contests of the third round. Of course, the cushy trend continued as well; so far Sergachev’s most common forward opponents have been Jay Beagle, Devante-Smith Pelly, and Alex Chiasson.

So, basically, Sergachev’s been acing every test, yet he hasn’t exactly been taking the toughest classes. To Cooper’s eyes, elevating his role now would be a lot like forcing that student to take the SATs with zero notice.

The thing is, while there’s uncertainty with Sergachev, key Lightning defensemen in higher roles have been struggling. Victor Hedman’s numbers have been disappointing (especially since he hasn’t faced much of Alex Ovechkin or rising star Evgeny Kuznetsov), while Stralman, McDonagh, and Girardi have also struggled. Sure, there’s a chance that Sergachev would get exposed with tougher matchups and more minutes, but is it that outrageous to wonder if the Russian defenseman would serve as an upgrade over one or more of those players?

To be fair, Sergachev’s already seen jumps in ice time during certain spans, though that might come down to context (trailing frequently against Washington rather than pulling away from Boston, when he was used sparingly). The Lightning would be wise to think long and hard about really giving Sergachev a chance to sink or swim.

Sure, he’s likely to be better – possibly much better – in the future, maybe as early as next season. For all we know, this could be the Lightning’s best shot at a Stanley Cup under Cooper and GM Steve Yzerman. The Bruins, Leafs, and other division rivals could improve. Nikita Kucherov‘s bargain deal ends after 2018-19. We’ve seen how injuries can derail this team despite all of their impressive talent evaluation and smart coaching.

Maybe the Lightning are better off staying the course, but if they continue to crater at even-strength and fall in this series, there could be some regrets. “Should we have given Sergachev more of a chance?” could serve as a painful question.

And, hey, if the net result is literally even, we’d at least have better odds of seeing him break out this move again:

Just saying.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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, Hedman must shake off ugly starts for Lightning

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The emergence of players such as Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde make the Tampa Bay Lightning the sort of varied, versatile team that can be downright intimidating. Still, to some extent, the buck stops with your biggest stars.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, even-strength success hasn’t been there for big names Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman through two shockingly stark losses to the Washington Capitals to open the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. They simply need more from marquee talent if they want to get back into this series.

Now, that’s not to say that these players have accomplished nothing.

Steven struggles at evens

Stamkos’ production looks like business as usual on paper, as he’s already generated two goals and one assist; Hedman has an assist in each contest. Things get more troubling when you dig deeper, however. Consider that all five of their points have come on the power play, a notion that anonymous team officials seem all too aware of.

Now, it would be silly to be excessively worried about where a player’s points are coming from. That’s especially true during the postseason, when it’s so precious and difficult to produce.

Their failings aren’t limited to the simpler box score stats of goals and assists. Take a look at the series possession stats at Natural Stat Trick and you’ll see some downright glaring even-strength numbers for Stamkos and Hedman, along with troubling numbers for Tyler Johnson, Anton Stralman, and others.

Those rocky possession stats come even though Hedman and Stamkos have largely avoided matching up with the Capitals’ dangerous combination of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. These struggles stand as testaments to the strong play of Lars Eller and the Matt NiskanenDmitry Orlov pairing, but that’s troubling for the Bolts. Watch, for example, Orlov juking Stamkos in a big way before a Jay Beagle goal from Game 1:

It’s to the point that you wonder if Barry Trotz will try to chase similar matchups now that the Capitals get the last change during home contests in Game 3 and 4. There are all sorts of tough questions bubble under the surface for Tampa Bay. Would things only get worse if Nicklas Backstrom manages to play tonight, or at least sometime during this series? Will Andrei Vasilevskiy bounce back from a difficult start that’s clearly not all his fault?

[Lightning face plenty of questions with Game 3 looming]

Aiming for better execution

Reports indicate that the Lightning aren’t making significant personnel changes, whether that means tweaking line combinations or even going with an 11F/7D alignment. As KISS-stupid-simple as it sounds, they realize that they need to perform at a higher level, though it’s promising to see that they’re clearly pouring over tape after two rattling losses.

As Bryan Burns of the Lightning website reports, Stamkos looks at this as a real test after the Lightning breezed through their first two rounds.

“We’re going to prepare for the toughest game that we’ve played all season,” Stamkos said. “It’s gut check time. Let’s see who we really are. We haven’t really had to deal with that so far in the playoffs. Now we are. We’ll see what type of team we have.”

The East’s top team is facing quiet a challenge against a determined, inspired Metropolitan Division winner in Washington. Pulling this off would put the Lightning in select company in recent history:

While dropping these specific games puts Tampa Bay in a situation with every little room for error, these players are likely aware that, as poorly as they played, it still was just two games. They merely need to look at the other end of the ice to see a Capitals team that fought through virtually the same situation. The Caps went down 2-0 to the Blue Jackets, losing two home games in Washington, only to advance with four wins in a row.

As formidable as Washington is, especially after dispatching the Penguins, it’s also difficult to believe that Hedman, Stamkos, and other key Lightning players don’t have more in them. That said, they don’t exactly have a long time to get things back on track.

The Lightning face off against the Capitals in Washington at 8 p.m. ET tonight. You can watch Game 3 on NBCSN and also stream it here.

MORE:
• 
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
• 
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

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.