Andrei Vasilevskiy

Get ready to learn a lot about the Lightning

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With a cursory glance at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s upcoming schedule, it was tempting to predict that the team will look like a juggernaut again very soon.

After beating the Predators in overtime in an unexpectedly nasty game in Nashville, the opportunity is indeed there to enjoy some home cooking. The Lightning play:

  • Their next three games at home.
  • Seven of their next eight games in Tampa Bay.
  • Could be set for a big December overall with 10 of their next 12 games at home.

Yet, when you dig a little deeper, the situation is even more interesting because a hot streak isn’t necessarily a slam dunk for Tampa Bay. While it’s dangerous to read too much into any month in the marathon that is an NHL regular season, it’s fair to say that we should get a better idea of what kind of team the Lightning might be in 2019-20.

Bumpy start

Chalk it up to a hangover from that jarring sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, Brayden Point limping into the early part of the season, or any other number of factors, but it’s clear that something’s been a bit off about the Lightning in 2019-20.

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect the Lightning to duplicate 2018-19’s regular-season magic, but it’s still jarring that, as of Dec. 4, Tampa Bay is not in a playoff position.

Now, sure, some of that is misleading. After all, the Lightning have only played in 25 games, the lowest total in the NHL. Still, a 13-9-3 record feels closer to a drizzle than a thunderstorm.

It’s a tad bit unnerving that Tampa Bay’s record is closer to “meh” than dominant when you consider that a decent number of things are going right for the Lightning.

Their power play is still humming along with a robust 29.3 percent success rate, third-best in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov isn’t on another 120-point pace, he’s still a dangerous scorer, and the Lightning are getting strong production from Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman (remarkably, 23 points in as many games), and Brayden Point. Beyond the usual suspects, they’re also seeing an even-more-revitalized-than-expected Kevin Shattenkirk (not far behind Hedman with 20 points in 25 GP), and some nice contributions from rising players like Anthony Cirelli.

The Lightning’s even-strength PDO (1.017) ranks seventh-highest in the NHL, a quick reference that indicates that they aren’t suffering from particularly terrible puck luck.

While their goaltending hasn’t been great (Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney share matching .908 save percentages), it hasn’t been a full-fledged disaster.

So … it’s fair to wonder if this Lightning team might fall closer to good than great. But, again, this stretch will tell us quite a bit about their ceiling — not everything, but quite a bit.

Another look at this home-heavy stretch

Here’s that span of 12 games, with road contests in italics:

Dec. 5: vs. Minnesota
Dec. 7: vs. San Jose
Dec. 9: vs. Islanders
Dec. 10: at Florida
Dec. 12: vs. Boston
Dec. 14: vs. Washington
Dec. 17: vs. Ottawa
Dec. 19: vs. Dallas
Dec. 21: at Washington
Dec. 23: vs. Florida
Dec. 28: vs. Montreal
Dec. 29: vs. Detroit

While the Senators and Red Wings stand as games the Lightning absolutely should win, and there are matches against teams who have been up and down (Wild, Sharks, Stars), it all looks like a set of challenges as much as this is a golden opportunity.

After all, the Lightning are only 6-4-1 so far at home this season, and that’s with that trip to Sweden mucking things up a bit.

***

It’s hyperbolic to say that this is a do-or-die stretch for the Lightning, but it’s still one of the more significant spans of their season.

Consider it the equivalent to an animal storing fat for in preparation for a difficult winter. From Dec. 31 through Feb. 1, the Lightning face what could be a treacherous run of away games: four in a row to begin 2020, 12 out of 15 games on the road. While that set of opponents is softer (at least on paper), it would likely help if they entered that run on a high note.

Do you think the Lightning can take advantage of December to prove that they’re still truly among the elite, or will they continue to face peaks and valleys?

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.

PHT Face-Off: Guentzel without Crosby; Year of the rookie defenseman

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It’s the start of another week, so that means it’s time for the PHT Face-Off to look ahead to some of the trends and topics that will dominate over the next seven days.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau had a November to remember:

Unless you’re paying really close attention to the Ottawa Senators, you probably didn’t notice how productive Pageau was throughout the month. He found the back of the net 11 times in 16 games in November. That puts him in some pretty elite company with this franchise:

Now, there are two questions surrounding his situation. First, how long can he keep this going? Only nine players have scored more goals than Pageau so far this season. That list includes: David Pastrnak, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Brad Marchand, Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Jake Guentzel, Patrick Kane and Elias Lindholm. That’s elite company to be in heading into the third month of the season.

Second, what do the Sens do with Pageau? He’s clearly having a career year and he’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. The 27-year-old has a cap hit of $3.1 million and you’d have to think that he’s going to get a raise. Do they re-sign him? Do they trade him and cash in on some good assets? We’ll see what happens.

• Guentzel can survive without Crosby: 

Guentzel is regarded as a good offensive player, but many fans have wondered whether or not he could keep producing offense without Sidney Crosby by his side. Well, he’s kind of in the middle of answering that question right now.

Crosby underwent surgery to repair a core muscle last month. The Pens captain last played on Nov. 9 against Chicago. Since then, the Penguins have played 10 games. Guentzel didn’t pick up a point in the first two games without Crosby, but he then rattled off a seven-game point streak. He’s up to 13 points in the 10 contests without his linemate.

Crosby isn’t the only that has missed time this season. Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Alex Galchenyuk and Patrik Hornqvist have also missed an extended period of time. Guentzel has played in all 27 games and he’s probably the team’s MVP right now.

• The year of the rookie defenseman: 

Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko were the first two picks in last year’s NHL Draft and they’ve both played extensively in the NHL this season, but they aren’t dominating the rookie scoring charts. Instead, Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar lead their rookie class in scoring right now. That’s pretty unique considering both players are defensemen.

Hughes is averaging 20:30 of ice time through 27 contests and he’s managed to pick up two goals and 23 points. Very impressive. He’s also just one three-assist performance away from tying Ray Bourque’s rookie record, which is mind-boggling considering there’s still so much time left in the 2019-20 campaign.

As for Makar, he has one three-plus assist performance under his belt, but he leads all rookies in scoring with 26 points in 26 games. The 21-year-old jumped onto the scene for Colorado last postseason and he’s continued to build on the success he had back then.

Can Makar finish the year at a point-per-game pace? If he does, he’ll be a shoe-in to win the Calder Trophy when it’s all said and done. The NHL’s rookie record for most points in a season by a first-year blueliner is 76 points (Larry Murphy with the Los Angeles Kings in 1980-81). It’s incredible to think that the Avs defender is still on pace to surpass that mark heading into December.

• When will Kyle Turris get back into the lineup? 

Nashville Predators forward Kyle Turris is only in the second year of his six-year, $36 million contract. That’s problematic when you consider that he’s been a healthy scratch in each of his team’s last seven games. The 30-year-old had just seven goals and 23 points in 55 games last year and his points-per-game pace has improved slightly this year, as he’s picked up nine points in 19 contests.

Seriously, what are the Predators going to do with him?

It’s tough to envision any team being willing to take that contract off GM David Poile’s hands. Maybe Nashville could get rid of him if they add a significant draft pick to a trade, but that’s unlikely. They could buy him out at the end of this season, but again, that will be expensive. If they chose to go down that route, they’d have $2 million in dead money on their cap until 2028.

“I’m certainly not trying to say this is a good situation or anything close to being a perfect situation,” Poile said, per The Athletic. “It’s just a roster decision. Peter Laviolette is our coach, and he will do anything to win a hockey game. He’s putting his best foot forward —  in this case, his best lineup forward — every night. That’s his job. That’s all I can ask from him.

“I am very confident that Kyle’s going to get a chance to play. Hopefully, he’s in a position to take advantage of it, and we turn the page on that. There’s nothing fair or equal in this business, so I can’t operate like that or what have you.”

• High-end goalies struggling:

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price may just be the three best goalies in the NHL, but their play certainly hasn’t indicated that for most of the season.

Let’s take a look at their numbers individually:

Vasilevskiy: 9-7-1, 2.96 goals-against-average and a .906 save percentage.
Bobrovsky: 9-6-4, 3.48 goals-against-average and a .884 save percentage
Price: 10-9-3, 3.18 goals-against-average and a .898 save percentage.

Raise your hand if you thought Darcy Kuemper (.935) was going to have the best save percentage in the league at the start of December. Connor Hellebuyck and Tuukka Rask are tied for second in that category at .933.

Which one of the three struggling netminders in the Atlantic Division is most likely to come out of this funk first? Is there one of these three that is just going to have a bad season and never wake up from this slumber? This should be an interesting situation to follow.

What’s coming up this week?

• The Sabres will have their Founders’ Night to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the day they were awarded an NHL franchise tonight at 7 p.m. ET.

• Several key players will play against their former teams this week. Artemi Panarin will take on Columbus (Thursday), Phil Kessel gets to see the Penguins (Friday) and P.K. Subban will play Nashville (Saturday).

NHL on NBCSN

• Lightning vs. Predators, Tue. Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET.

Wednesday Night Hockey

• Blues vs. Penguins, Wed. Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET

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

The Buzzer: Islanders, others make Saturday strong for streaks

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Happy streaks continue, sad ones end

The Sharks beat the Islanders 2-1 in overtime, ending the Isles’ latest winning streak at five. You may notice that it took OT to make that happen, though, so the Islanders’ franchise-record point streak grows to 17 games (15-0-2).

Dallas isn’t all that far behind the Islanders, as the Stars have won six games in a row, and are now 13-1-1 in their past 15 games.

Two six-game losing streaks ended on Saturday, as the Flames should thank David Rittich, while the Predators won but must cross their fingers about Viktor Arvidsson‘s health.

Three Stars

1. Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

It’s difficult to pick between Bergeron (four assists) and his teammate Torey Krug (overtime game-winning goal, two assists). Feel free to swap them in your mind if that suits your taste, but either way, Boston’s biggest names continue to propel them to wins.

Bergeron hasn’t been as spectacular as Brad Marchand (1G, 1A on Saturday) and David Pastrnak (no points) this season, but he’s still playing well, as this outburst gives him 24 points in 21 games. The 34-year-old also has a four-game point/assist streak going, with seven during that span.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combined for another dominant performance, as they’re wont to do.

McDavid scored two goals, while Draisaitl piled up three assists, all primary. That extra point gives Draisaitl (47) the season points lead over McDavid (46), and also gets Draisaitl the mention as the second star instead of 97. McDavid will probably work through this setback.

3. Anton Khudobin, Dallas Stars

There seems to be a theme running. At some point, the Islanders have to cool off a bit, right? McDavid + Draisaitl and the Bruins’ top line can’t dominate every game, can they?

We’re at the point where the Stars duo of Khudobin and Ben Bishop are inspiring similar questions (and serving as parallels to the Isles’ goalies), as they just keep getting it done. Dallas needed all of Khudobin’s 38 saves through regulation and overtime to win in a shootout where Khudobin turned aside both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Robin Lehner deserves a mention, as stopped 40 out of 41 shots but didn’t get the W. Lehner’s essentially playing like an amazing MLB ace who is getting basically zero run support most nights with the Blackhawks.

Highlight of the Night

This is a dazzling bit of wizardry from the Rangers, who managed to storm back from an 0-4 deficit to beat the Canadiens 6-5 in regulation:

Ewww

If you’re anxious about an upcoming dentist visit, don’t hit play. Or if you’re squeamish, really. Keith Yandle is a hockey player, thus he returned …

Factoids

  • Sportsnet points out that Draisaitl and McDavid are the first teammates with at least 45 points each in their team’s first 25 games since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr managed the feat for the Penguins in 1995-96. The full list of pairings to pull that off is quite small.
  • Josh Morrissey and Nathan Beaulieu were injured during the Jets’ game, and so was the night’s starter, Laurent Brossoit. Winnipeg still managed a win.
  • Andrei Vasilevskiy set a Lightning franchise record with his 132nd win. That face doesn’t necessarily say “Wow, that’s not a very impressive franchise record,” but its nondescript nature is even more amusing if you imagine in that way.

  • NHL PR notes that the Rangers’ comeback win from down four goals ranks as the fifth such comeback win already this season, which already ties the league’s single-season record. Feel free to make jokes about how a four-goal lead has replaced a two-goal lead as the “worst lead in hockey.”

(You actually really don’t have to.)

Scores

VAN 2 – WSH 1 (SO)
CGY 3 – PHI 2 (SO)
ARI 3 – LAK 2
BOS 5 – MIN 4 (OT)
NYR 6 – MTL 5
TBL 6 – ANA 2
NJD 5 – DET 1
CAR 4 – FLA 2
WPG 4 – CBJ 3
TOR 5 – COL 3
NSH 4 – STL 2
DAL 2 – CHI 1 (SO)
EDM 4 – VGK 2
SJS 2 – NYI 1 (OT)

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.

Rangers win on rough night for Lightning

For a while, it looked like the Tampa Bay Lightning would author the dreaded “costly win,” as they managed a 1-0 first period lead while seeing Victor Hedman and Patrick Maroon leave the game (and not return) with early injuries.

The New York Rangers were determined to make it a costly loss, instead, beating the Lightning with an impressive 4-1 effort.

Here are some takeaways from a hard-working win by this young Rangers team.

The costly part

After seeing a historic regular season be left in smoldering ruins thanks to a first-round sweep by the Blue Jackets, Lightning coach Jon Cooper wondered if the team wasn’t ready for adversity. Maybe this is a “be careful what you wish for” situation.

Again, Hedman and Maroon were injured on Tuesday. It’s unclear how Hedman got hurt (other than it’s a lower-body issue), while Maroon was injured after fighting with one of the NHL’s last remaining enforcers, Micheal Haley.

The Bolts were already a little banged up to begin with, as Anthony Cirelli missed the game, and Brayden Point was a game-time decision. The Lightning have to hope that Hedman’s new issue is a minor one, as they struggled mightily without him late in 2018-19, including that playoff plummet.

Of course, things weren’t perfect for the Rangers, as they won without star center Mika Zibanejad.

A nice all-around effort by New York

The only goal the Rangers allowed was partially due to the Lightning managing a very long stretch in the attacking zone, and partially based on a bad line change.

But aside from that, they managed to play a strong all-around game, bouncing back from a humbling 7-4 loss against the Bruins. Via Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers generated 11 high-danger chances at 5-on-5 while only allowing five by the Lightning.

It must be heartening that both Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox scored goals on Tuesday. The kids will have their growing pains, but they could be alright.

Also: Ryan Strome now has a three-game multi-point streak after scoring a goal and an assist, and his overall point streak is at five games (three goals, five assists for eight points).

Great goaltending

This was a low-scoring affair until the Rangers really started to break through, in part because of sharp goaltending.

Alexandar Georgiev grabbed the win, stopping 29 out of 30 shots. Andrei Vasilevskiy couldn’t grab the W, yet he was strong, making 38 out of 41 saves.

The Rangers face an uphill battle at 4-5-1, but nights like Tuesday strengthen the argument that they’re making some strides in the right direction. Now at 5-4-2, it’s clear that the Lightning have almost as much ground to cover.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 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.

Vasilevskiy’s last-second save helps Lightning top Penguins

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Andrei Vasilevskiy saved his best for the final seconds.

Kris Letang raised his left fist believing he notched the game-tying goal, but Vasilevskiy got just enough to propel Tampa Bay to a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday.

Victor Hedman scored a go-ahead power-play goal with less than a minute remaining in the final period when his slap shot whizzed past Tristan Jarry as Tampa captured its fifth win of the season.

Alex Killorn and Cedric Paquette each recorded his first goal of the season as the Bolts won for the third time in the previous four games.

Brandon Tanev and Sidney Crosby scored as Pittsburgh dropped its third consecutive game. Jarry made 45 saves in his third start of the season.

Here are a few quick observations from Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win against Pittsburgh:

Penguins take one too many penalties

The Lightning are as dangerous as any team in the NHL and the Penguins learned a hard lesson in the final minutes of play on Wednesday.

Jake Guentzel tried to eliminate a potential odd-man rush opportunity but was whistled for hooking Anthony Cirelli at 17:55 of the third period.

Having just killed off Zach Aston-Reese’s stick throwing penalty less than a minute earlier, the Penguins were playing with fire and eventually got burned.

The Lightning struggled to establish possession in the offensive zone for the first half of the man-advantage but a slick backhanded-touch pass from Tyler Johnson allowed Tampa to set up.

With multiple options to cover, the Penguins focused on Steven Stamkos at the left circle, which allowed Hedman to hammer a one-timer from the point.

The Lightning have not looked like the well-oiled machine that they were last season, but are showing signs of returning to the powerhouse they are expected to be.

[RELATED: Lightning honor Congressional Medal of Honor recipients]

Tanev shows upside

The Penguins signed Brandon Tanev to a six-year contract this offseason with hopes the gritty forward has far more offensive potential than he has shown in the first few years of his NHL career.

The 27-year-old tallied a nifty backhander in the second period of play to even the score at 1-1. After collecting his own rebound, and circling the net, Tanev took advantage of a small opening above the glove of Vasilevskiy.

Depth has become one of the most important ingredients needed to ensure a successful playoff run. While most NHL teams fill these roles with one-year contracts or cheap deadline acquisitions, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford went a different route this past offseason.

NOTE:

Sidney Crosby picked up his 1,230th NHL point, moving him past Norm Ullman for 40th in NHL history.

MORE: Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV Schedule

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