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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.

Lightning’s Hedman leaves game after collision with referee (Video)

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It turned out to be a pretty miserable Sunday for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Not only did they play what was probably their worst game of the season in a 5-1 loss to the New York Islanders, but they also lost one of their top players when reigning Norris Trophy winning defender Victor Hedman had to exit the game with what the team is calling an “upper-body injury.”

It was kind of a fluke, unfortunate play as it occurred in the neutral zone when Hedman collided with referee Chris Rooney.

Have a look.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper had no other update after the game except only to say that his star defender did not have to go through concussion protocol. He seemed to be having an issue with his eye as he sat on the bench in the immediate aftermath of the collision.

Hedman has already missed eight games this season due to injury but still has five goals and 24 assists in his 39 games played.

Even with Sunday’s loss the Lightning still have an NHL best 35-9-2 record and a substantial lead over every other team in the league.

On the other side, it was a thoroughly convincing win by an Islanders team that continues to be one of the biggest surprises in the NHL. They jumped all over the Lightning with three goals in the first six minutes and never looked back with what was their most complete effort of the season against the NHL’s best team.

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.

 

The 15 best NHL players of 2018 (PHT Year In Review)

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Pro Hockey Talk is taking a look back at the year in hockey. We’ll be presenting you with the best goals, saves, moments, players and more as we remember 2018.

This week’s PHT Power Rankings wraps up our 2018 year in review by taking a look back at the best players of the past calendar year. Obviously that means taking into account just what happened from Jan. 1 through the end of the year.

It was a great year for some of the NHL’s best players, especially as goal-scoring has seen a spike around the league. That means players like Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were able to put up some huge numbers.

They were not the only players that shined in 2018 so let’s take a look at the top-15 players from the past year.

To the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers. There isn’t a better offensive player in the world. In 2018 he completed his second straight 100-point season, won his second straight Art Ross Trophy, and probably had a strong argument to be the league ost Valuable Player if he had a better team around him. His 119 points in 80 games were the most in the NHL during the calendar year and he did it playing for a team where he literally had to create more than half of the offense. Imagine if he had more around him.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning. The Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the league’s best teams the past five years and Kucherov has become their best player. He is a remarkable offensive talent and can take over a game like few others in the league. He has surged to the top of the NHL’s points race this season in recent weeks with an absolutely mind-blowing run that has seen him record 46 points in 22 games. He has recorded at least one point in 20 of those games.

3. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. He did not get enough Hart Trophy consideration last year considering he was once again the league’s leading goal-scorer on a contending team. It also turned out to be a huge year for him and the Capitals as they finally ended their Stanley Cup drought with Ovechkin playing a key role in that run. He is 33 years old and still the most dominant goal-scorer in the league, and there really are not many players that are close to him.

4-5. Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon. I am putting these two together because their production has been nearly identical, they typically play on the same line, and they are the driving force behind the Colorado Avalanche’s resurgence the past two seasons. They are both among the top-three point-producers in the NHL from 2018 and are usually good to team up for at least one goal in almost every game the Avalanche play. It’s not often that one line can turn a team into a playoff team, but this one does it.

6. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins. His days as an NHL scoring champion are probably over, but he is still one of the best all-around players in the league and a game-changing force every time he is on the ice. He had 100 points in 77 games in 2018 and is still one of the best in the world at dictating the pace of the game.

7. Taylor Hall, New Jersey Devils. He almost single handedly carried the New Jersey Devils to a playoff spot during the 2017-18 season and won the Hart Trophy as a result. It was a well deserved honor. Unfortunately the Devils haven’t done enough to surround him with talent and he may now be having flashbacks to his days in Edmonton where he is the only player providing the offense.

8. John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks. He is trying to do the goaltending version of what Hall did a season ago and drag an otherwise mediocre a team to the playoffs on his back. There has not been a better goaltender in the NHL over the past year, and assuming he stays healthy and keeps playing at his current level he should be a front-runner for the Vezina Trophy at the end of this season.

9. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning. The most complete defender in the NHL. A workhorse in terms of the minutes he plays and a shutdown defender that also helps drive the offense.

AP Images

10. Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs. If hadn’t missed so many games due to injury he would probably be even higher on the list. His 36 goals are 17th in the NHL for 2018, but he scored them in only 57 games. That is a 54-goal pace over a full 82-game season. He opened the 2018-19 season with 19 goals in his first 25 games.

11. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins. Like Crosby, his days as a potential scoring champion are probably behind him, but when he is playing at his best there are few players in the league that can match him. 

12. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators. He had a couple of down years that made it look like his career was starting to wind down, but over the past two Pekka Rinne has rebounded in a big way to once again play like one of the top goalies in the league. In 2018 his .926 save percentage was right there with Gibson for the best in the league and after a couple of seasons as a runner-up, he finally took home his first Vezina Trophy.

13. Patrik Laine, Winnipeg Jets. The second-best goal scorer in the NHL after Ovechkin, and probably the player that is going to take over his throne as the league’s goal-scoring champion whenever Ovechkin finally slows down (if he ever slows down). He scored 50 goals this past year in 77 games.

14. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers. Because the team around him has been a bit of a mess it’s probably easy to overlook just how good Claude Giroux still is. He was one of seven players in the NHL to top 100 points during the 2018 calendar year and is still one of the league’s elite playmakers. After a couple of down years from a points perspective he has quickly rocketed back to the top the past two seasons.

15. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. He is one of the league’s most hated players (unless you play for the Bruins or cheer for the Bruins) because of the way he plays and his attempts to annoy his opponents. But he is also one of the league’s best players when you combine his offense (94 points in 77 games during 2018), defensive play, and ability to drive possession. He has been one of the top offensive performers for a couple of years now and seemed to take his game to an even higher level in 2018. He is a remarkable all-around player.

More PHT Year in Review:
• Bloopers
• Moments

Saves
 Goals

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: 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.

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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.

PHT Power Rankings: NHL’s most dominant performances so far

In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a look at the players, lines, and positions that have put together the most dominant performances through the first two-and-a-half months of the NHL season.

There are a lot of the usual suspects in here, from the top line of the Colorado Avalanche, the ridiculous depth of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to the unstoppable force that is the Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom duo.

There are also a few pairings that have maybe been overlooked so far this season.

1. Colorado’s top line. There should be no debate as to which team boasts the NHL’s best line and it is the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. Their performance so far this season has been nothing short of dominant and has been the driving force behind what is looking to be a second consecutive playoff appearance for the Avalanche. Individually, they are each among the league’s top-15 scorers while Rantanen and MacKinnon are first and second in the league having both already exceeded the 50-point mark. They are on track to be one of the best duos the league has seen in recent history, and when you combine them with Landeskog they make the NHL’s most complete line. When that trio has been on the ice together during 5-on-5 play this season the Avalanche are outscoring teams by a 31-16 margin and controlling more than 54 percent of the total shot attempts. When that line is not on the ice the Avalanche are a negative team in both areas.

[Related: Avalanche duo chasing rare feat]

2. The duo of Ovechkin and Backstrom. Individually they have been sensational. The perpetually underrated Backstrom is off to one of the best starts of his career, while Ovechkin is scoring goals at a pace that is unprecedented in this era even for him. When they have been on the ice together the Capitals have been an unstoppable force. They’ve only spent about 200 minutes together at even-strength but the Capitals have a 15-4 goal different during those minutes and their work on the power play is as great as it has ever been. They won a Stanley Cup, partied all summer, and came back even stronger.

3. Connor McDavid. He is trying to almost single-handedly carry the Edmonton Oilers to a playoff spot. He is playing more than 23 minutes per night, is on pace for more than 120 points, and has had a hand in literally 50 percent of his team’s goals. When he is not on the ice the Oilers are still playing at a lottery team level, just as they have throughout most of his career.

4. The Lightning. The whole team. Everything about them. Entering play on Monday the Lightning have a six-point lead over the second-best team in the NHL. No team has had that large of a lead in the standings on Dec. 17 since the 2008-09 San Jose Sharks, and the Lightning have done that despite not having their top defender, Victor Hedman, for seven games earlier this season and not having their starting goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for more than a month. Both players were awards finalists a year ago, with Hedman actually winning the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender. If that is not enough, they are still averaging four goals per game while their 138 goals are the fourth most through a team’s first 34 games over the past 25 years. Only the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1995-96 Avalanche, and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators had more goals after their first 34 games during that stretch. Truly dominant team across the board.

5. Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner. Buffalo Sabres fans have reason to believe again, and this duo is the biggest reason why. Not only are they wildly productive together, but they have been a highlight reel almost every night. Skinner is second in the league in goals as of Monday while Eichel is in the top-six in total points. The Sabres are a plus-18 (32 goals for, 14 goals against) when they are on the ice together at even-strength. This is everything the team could have possibly hoped for when they acquired Skinner before the season to play alongside their franchise player.

6. Calgary’s top pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. This might be the best defense pairing in hockey this season, and I’m not sure anyone else is really close. Giordano is having a career year and should be a mid-season contender for the Norris, while he and Brodie have been outstanding as a pairing. How good have they been? In 470 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with them on the ice the Flames have allowed just nine goals (that is only 1.15 goals per 60 minutes) and only 45 total shot attempts per 60 minutes. For some perspective on that the Vegas Golden Knights are the best team in the league when it comes to suppressing shot attempts … they give up 51.2 shot attempts per 60 minutes. The Boston Bruins are the best team when it comes to 5-on-5 goal prevention … they are giving up 1.84 goals per 60 minutes. Just total defensive dominance from these two, while Giordano is also having a spectacular year offensively.

7. John Gibson and Ryan Miller. No potential playoff team bleeds shots and scoring chances against quite like the Anaheim Ducks do. With anything less than outstanding goaltending they would probably near the bottom of the Western Conference standings instead of in contention for the Pacific Division crown. But they are not only getting outstanding goaltending, they are getting the best goaltending in the NHL. Together the Gibson-Miller duo has combined for a league-best .920 save percentage this season, .004 points better than any other team in the league and .012 points better than the league average.

8. Auston Matthews. He would probably higher on the list had he played in more games, but 16 goals and 19 games is a ridiculous scoring pace, as is the fact he already has six two-goal games this season. Only Ovechkin (with seven) has more. Matthews, again, has only played in 19 games while Ovechkin has played in 32 for the Capitals.

9. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It does not matter if their center is Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, this duo is the engine that drives the Bruins’ offense, and by extension, the entire team. The Bruins aren’t really getting any scoring outside of this line so they are going to need them to continue carrying the load if they are going to be a playoff team. They have been great with Krejci, but they are even better with Bergeron, and he seems to be getting closer to a return to the lineup.

10. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The Pittsburgh Penguins do not have a particularly good defense, and they are not a great defensive team by any stretch, but they do have one of the NHL’s absolute best defensive pairs in Letang and Dumoulin. Together they’ve doubled up their opponents in the goals department (28-14) and have controlled nearly 60 percent of the shot attempts and scoring chances when they are on the ice together. Letang is the dominant player in this group due to his offensive ability (nearly a point per game), but Dumoulin is a perfect complement to him and they have been exceptional together from the start.

(Data in this post via Hockey-Reference and Natural Stat Trick)

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.