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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.

Conn Smythe Power Rankings: It is still Fleury’s to lose

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Now that the Stanley Cup Final is officially set with the Washington Capitals taking on the Vegas Golden Knights, the field of potential Conn Smythe trophy winners has been cut down once again.

The clear leader remains the same, and it is still Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Not only is he still in the lead, there is a pretty strong argument to be made that barring a complete collapse in the Stanley Cup Final it might be his whether the Golden Knights win or lose the series. It would not be entirely fair to say he is the only reason Vegas has reached this point (that top line is pretty spectacular, too), but he is the foundation of the team and is having a pretty historic run through the playoffs that has to be considered one of the best performances of all-time.

Just consider that of the 139 goalies that have appeared in at least 15 playoff games in a single postseason none have recorded a higher save percentage than Fleury’s .947 this season. Along with that he already has four shutouts, including two in series-clinching wins.

If Vegas wins, he is the slam-dunk winner and leading a first-year expansion team to a championship (which would be his fourth) becomes the defining moment of his career and perhaps the last thing he needs to secure a spot in the Hall of Fame.

If Vegas loses, it still might be a good enough performance to earn him the award.

There is precedent for such a thing to happen as it has been awarded to a member of the losing team five times, with the most recent time coming in 2002-03 when Jean-Sebastien Giguere won it in a losing effort for the Anaheim Ducks.

Ron Hextall (Philadelphia Flyers, 1987), Reggie Leach (Philadelphia Flyers, 1976), Glenn Hall (St. Louis Blues, 1968), Roger Crozier (Detroit Red Wings, 1966) were the others.

It takes a pretty spectacular effort to get that sort of recognition (Giguere’s performance in 2003 was one of the greatest goaltending performances in playoff history that included five shutouts. Leach scored what is still a league-record 19 playoff goals in 1976) and Fleury might be at that level right now.

While he is the clear leader, that does not mean there are not other players that could still overtake him over the next two weeks.

Let’s take a look at the rankings.

1. Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights. As talked about above, if he maintains this level of play throughout the next round it might be good enough whether his team wins or not.

[Related: These playoffs belong to Marc-Andre Fleury]

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. If there is anybody that is going to overtake Fleury right now the leading contender would have to be Ovechkin. He has been, quite simply, fantastic for the Capitals. After scoring the eventual game-winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final he now has 12 goals in 19 playoffs games, is averaging more than a point-per-game (22 points in 19 games), now has a pair of game-winning goals, and has just been a dominant figure in the Capitals’ run to the Final. Everything is going through him offensively. None of this should change your perception of Ovechkin as a player because he has always done this in the playoffs. The only difference this season is everything is falling in place around him to finally get him and the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals. Since reclaiming his starting spot in Game 3 of the first-round Holtby has been everything the Capitals have needed him to be. They have won 12 out of the 18 games he has started, he has a .924 save percentage which is very close to his career postseason mark of .930 (which is one of the best all-time), and he just pitched back-to-back shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Just like Ovechin, Holtby has always been a big-time performer in the playoffs for the Capitals, even in defeat.

4. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals. It seems like we are not paying enough attention to the fact that Kuznetsov enters the Stanley Cup Final as the leading scorer in these playoffs with 24 points in 19 games. He is also riding a 10-game point streak that included a run where he scored a goal in six out of seven games. That stretch included a series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a goal that might be the defining moment of the Capitals’ playoff run given their history against the Penguins. In Game 5 of that series he scored a game-tying goal in the opening minute of the third period to help shift the series in their favor.

5. Jonathan Marchessault, Vegas Golden Knights. While Fleury is shutting teams down in net, Marchessault has been the driving force behind the Vegas offense. He is leading the team with 18 points in 15 games and was a game-changer in the Western Conference Final against the Winnipeg Jets, recording seven points in five games, including a pair of two-goal games. Not only has he proven that his 30-goal season a year ago was not a fluke and that he is a legitimate top-line player in the NHL, but that contract extension he signed with Vegas that will pay him $5 million per year is starting to look a steal for the Golden Knights.

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.

Oshie, Ovechkin give Capitals’ power play unique options

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WASHINGTON — When you think of the Washington Capitals’ power play the first thing that probably jumps into your mind is Alex Ovechkin casually standing on top of the left circle, waiting for somebody to lob a perfectly placed pass directly into his wheelhouse, and then him bombing a one-timer at the net. If you are a fan of the Capitals or have no rooting interest in the outcome of the game it can breathtakingly fun to watch. For everybody else there has to be a sense of inevitability to it all because you know where he is going to be, you know what is going to happen, and you know your team is probably not going to be able to stop it.

It is perhaps the most dominant play in the league, and it is a big part of what makes the Capitals power play such a valuable weapon for them. It is not the only weapon the Capitals have on the power play.

Entering Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) the Capitals power play is clicking at 29.8 percent, which is an absurdly efficient rate. Among teams that have played at least 15 games in a single postseason that is the second-highest mark in league history (up from the fifth highest a few days ago when we last looked at these stunning numbers) trailing only the 1980-81 New York Islanders.

What makes the unit so difficult to defend is that is it has so many different options that can — and will — beat you.

The Ovechkin option is the obvious one, and the one that gets most of the attention both in terms of how the unit is talked about and defended.

In the second round the Penguins tried to take that option away from the Capitals by shading a player over into Ovechkin’s office and trying to keep him from unloading his one-timer on net. In terms of shutting down Ovechkin, it kind of worked. He didn’t score a single power play goal in the series (the only series this postseason in which he has not scored a power play goal, and only the fifth playoff series in his career he did not score a power play goal) and was limited to just five total shot attempts in 20 minutes of power play time That is only 0.25 shot attempts per minute, a shockingly low rate for Ovechkin. By comparison, he attempted 27 shots on the power play in 37 minutes of power play time (0.729 shots per minute) in the first-round against the Columbus Blue Jackets and has attempted 22 shots in 20 minutes of power play time in the first six games against Tampa Bay (1.1 shot attempts per minute).

The problem the Penguins ran into: All of that focus on Ovechkin left T.J. Oshie and John Carlson (17 shot attempts in 20 minutes of power play ice time, including a massive goal in Game 5 of the series where he was able to walk down the middle of the ice wide open) alone to beat them. And they did. Even with Ovechkin being a non-factor on the power play in terms of shot attempts and goals, the Capitals power play still managed to convert on 26.6 percent of its power play opportunities in the series. The top power play unit in the NHL during the regular season (Pittsburgh) converted on 26.2 percent of its chances. So … still great. Still better than everybody else.

The problem with shading over to Ovechkin and making it a 4-on-3 everywhere else is the “everywhere else” is also filled with talented players that form a cohesive unit that is masterful in what it does. They find the open area. They find the open man. They put the puck exactly where it needs to be to allow for the best and quickest shot possible. 

While the Ovechkin one-timer is the notable play, the Capitals have seemingly perfected another one-timer that takes advantage of all of the attention that goes to Ovechkin. That would be where T.J. Oshie drifts into the soft area in the middle of the penalty kill box and creates just enough space to get a shot of his own. That play has worked numerous times for the Capitals in these playoffs. So far Oshie has a team-leading five power play goals this postseason, with four of them coming from this exact location, standing directly between four opposing players.

This is T.J Oshie’s office.

(He scored a power play goal just seconds after that screen shot).

Three of them were by the one-timer from there and one was a deflection from that spot. The fifth was a rebound off of a scramble in front.

Perhaps the biggest of those goals came in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning to break what was at the time a scoreless tie in the second period. This went in the books as the game-winning goal.

After the game on Monday Oshie talked about what makes that play work and gave a lot of credit to the presence of Ovechkin.

“I think the biggest thing there is No. 8 over in his office,” said Oshie. “How teams play us all depends on where he is and how they want to play him. For me it’s just a matter of a couple of feet here and there to find that soft area, whether it’s [Nicklas Backstrom] or [Evgeny Kuznetsov] typically they are able to find a way to get that puck into the wheelhouse and it’s up to me to find the hole.”

So, in a way, Ovechkin still drives the success even if he is not the one doing the damage. This is definitely a case of making players around him better. It is still up to those players to make it work. They do exactly that, and it is what makes the Capitals’ power play almost impossible to defend. If they didn’t make it work the whole thing would fall apart and the “shadow Ovechkin” approach might actually create its desired result: Stop the power play. That is not at all what happens.

Take away Ovechkin’s office? Oshie and Carlson are going to beat you in the middle of the ice. Try to clog the middle of the ice? Ovechkin will once again be lurking above the circle with nobody around him. It is a no-win game. The only way to truly stop them is to just stay out of the penalty box.

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

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 need to ‘push back’ after missed opportunity in Game 6

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WASHINGTON — For the third time in four years the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves facing one of the ultimate situations in the sport.

A Game 7 in the Conference Final with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line.

It is obviously a familiar situation for most of the core group as 11 players on the roster, as well as head coach Jon Cooper, have been in place for all three of these recent runs. They split the previous two Game 7s, beating the New York Rangers in 2015 on their way to a Final showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks, and losing a one-goal nail-biter in 2016 against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Now they find themselves in a winner-take-all game on Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) after dropping Game 6 in Washington on Monday night. It was a brutally physical, electrifying game that saw Capitals goalie Braden Holtby pitch his first shutout of the season and the Lightning find themselves trying to chase a more desperate team for much of the night.

[Related: Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most]

It was probably a disappointing effort on the part of the Lightning after winning three consecutive games to push the Capitals to the brink of elimination. To be fair, it is awfully difficult to beat any team four games in a row, especially when you get to this point in the season when only the best of the best are still left standing. But anytime you have a chance to finish a team and deliver a knockout punch you want to take advantage of that. Sometimes you can’t control the result. Sometimes no matter how well you play things are not going to go your way on the scoreboard. Stuff happens. But you can control the way you play and the latter part was a big part of Cooper’s post-game presser on Monday night, as well as the situation it leaves them in.

“We didn’t play with near the desperation they did,” said Cooper. “Was it a fairly even game? There is no question. But what were the hits, 39-19? Somebody was engaged and somebody was not. That is a choice, and you can spin this anyway you want. You can say, ‘well good for Tampa they were down 0-2 and they pushed this to a Game 7.’ Or you could say ‘wow they blew a big opportunity to close this series out.’

“In the end there is a Game 7,” he continued. “It is at home. If you said to me you just have to go 2-2 at home in this series and you are going to win it, we will take that. We won two on the road, now we have to go home and make sure we take care of business there. Shame on us if we don’t.”

While home ice is all well and good, it isn’t necessarily something that has been a huge advantage in these playoffs, and especially not in this series where each team to this point has lost two of the three games in their own building.

“I think if you look at the statistics in these playoffs, pretty sure the playoffs the road team has won more than the home team,” said Cooper, who was correct in his assessment of playoff records, where the road teams own a 41-37 mark.

“You have an advantage of home. you get to squeak your matches a little better, there is face-offs, there is 20,000 people pulling for you. If you’re going to give me a game, and I have no idea what the results are going to be, but if you’re going to give me a game I’d rather play it at home than on the road. They earned that during the regular season and now we need it. Now we need to use it to our advantage.”

Still, the question remains as to why the Lightning, the top team in the Eastern Conference that had just pulled off three wins in a row, played so flat at times in a potential close out game. Cooper was asked on Monday night if he thought his team was maybe relying too much on the fact it knew it had Game 7 sitting in its back pocket and thus didn’t have the same urgency as the Capitals.

“I don’t know, is that human nature? Who knows,” said Cooper. “I guess in the back of your mind you know it’s going to be there. But did our guys try and win a hockey game? They did.”

He continued: “But with this time of year with only three teams left with a chance to play for the Stanley Cup your urgency level, your determination level, they have to make you so uncomfortable, that is what pushes you through. There were times we played like that, there were times we didn’t. It’s so hard to win and this group has been through these games before. Maybe winning three in a row and clawing back into this series, we were on life support, maybe it’s taken its toll on us. Maybe we exhaled a little bit. But I will tell you one thing, I’ve been so proud to coach this group over the past five years, every time they have been pushed against the wall, they have pushed back. It has been awesome to coach them, we are being pushed again, and now it is time to push back.”

These two teams are very similar in a lot of ways, so it’s probably kind of fitting that they find themselves in this situation where one game decides who moves on.

They each have one of the top-two goal-scorers from this generation in Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), both of whom are still searching for their first Stanley Cup ring.

While the Tampa Bay organization has won the Stanley Cup once in its existence (and been back to the Final within the past four years) this particular core — which is an outstanding one! — still hasn’t done it. They, too, have been painfully close only to have it fall just out of reach. After losing the Final to Chicago in 2015, they came back the previous season and let a 3-2 series lead slip away against Pittsburgh after missing an opportunity to close out the series on home ice. They had a 3-2 series lead this time around, missed an opportunity to close it out again with a game that probably was not their best effort, and now find themselves in another Game 7 with a trip to the Final on the line.

Both teams have a ton of pressure to come through and break through the glass ceiling that has been sitting above them. It should make for an outstanding game on Wednesday night.

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

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.

Braden Holtby dominated when the Capitals needed him most

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WASHINGTON — The Washington Capitals weren’t ready for their season to come to an end.

By playing what might have been their most complete game of the playoffs, they were able to force a Game 7 (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in the Eastern Conference final with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday night, picking up their first home win of the series.

While the Capitals were playing a relentlessly physical game and getting big performances from T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly, it was goaltender Braden Holtby playing what might have been his best and biggest game of the season to help drive the win and extend their season to a winner-take-all game in Tampa.

After the game Capitals coach Barry Trotz called Holtby “the backbone” of their team, and there were times in Game 6 where they needed him to be exactly that.

[Related: PHT Three Stars]

While he didn’t have to face a ton of shots (Tampa managed just 24 shots) he was still tested by a powerful Lightning attack and needed to be called upon to make some massive saves to record his first shutout of the season, a rather stunning stat considering he led the league in shutouts a year ago with nine.

“The only reason is it is good is you know you won,” said Holtby when asked about not recording a shutout this season until Monday. “Aside from that it’s just another statistic for you guys to write about. For us it is just that ‘W’ that matters.”

Well, they got that ‘W’ in large part because of Holtby’s play. Even though they ended up with a three-goal edge on the scoreboard at the end of the night, it could have easily shifted in another direction numerous times.

With the game was still scoreless in the second period, for example, he made a huge pad save on Anthony Cirelli when he broke in all alone on an odd-man rush.

In the third period, he helped preserve what was at the time a one-goal lead when he made an incredible glove save on a wide open Nikita Kucherov as he flew down the middle of the ice after coming off the bench on a perfectly timed line change.

Holtby downplayed that save after the game.

“I think that save probably looks better than it actually is,” Holtby said.” There are some that are more difficult than that. I think it was just the positioning and where the puck was. I was just trying to stay in the moment, focus on the puck, and make the save.”

It turned out to be a massive save because just a few minutes later Smith-Pelly delivered what was probably the knockout punch of the game when he scored his fourth goal of the playoffs to give the Capitals a two-goal lead.

Until that second goal was scored the Capitals had spent most of the period leaning on Holtby to stand tall and he was more than up to the task.

Overall this has been a bizarre season for Holtby.

In terms of his overall statistics it was probably his worst one since he became the Capitals’ starting goalie. After a so-so start, he struggling mightily over the last two months and then ended up on the bench for Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in place of Philipp Grubauer.

But after Grubauer struggled and the Capitals were facing a two-game deficit, Holtby reclaimed his starting spot and has done what he has done throughout his career in the playoffs — give his team a chance just about every single night.

Given how well Holtby has played in his career in the postseason it is downright staggering that his team hasn’t had more success in the playoffs. His career save percentage in the playoffs is the second best all-time and he’s rarely, if ever, had a poor showing over an entire series. It has just always come down to there at times being a goalie at the other end of the ice that has been just a little bit better.

Goaltending has been the big story of this series and even if it’s oversimplifying things to say, the team with the best goalie has won every game.

After dropping three games in a row and sending their season to the brink of what could have been another soul-crushing end, the Capitals needed their goalie to be the better one on Monday night.

He was.

Now they need him to do it one more time on Wednesday.

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

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.