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Bishop, Lehner, Vasilevskiy are 2019 Vezina Trophy finalists

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Awards season shifts to the crease as the three finalists for the NHL’s top netminder were unveiled on Saturday.

The nominees, voted by the league’s 31 general managers, including Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars, Robin Lehner of the New York Islanders and Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The award was first presented by Leo Dandurand, Louis Letourneau and Joe Cattarinich, former owners of the Montreal Canadiens,1926-27 in memory Georges Vezina, who died in 1925 from tuberculosis. Prior to the 1981-82 season, the goaltender(s) of a team with the fewest number of goals allowed during the regular season was awarded the trophy.

The winner will be announced on June 19 (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) at the 2019 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The case for Ben Bishop: Bishop was superb all season, leading all goalies with a .934 save percentage, finishing second in goals-against average with a 1.98 and third in shutouts with seven. Bishop came to life down the stretch, going 8-0-1 in his final 10 appearances as the Stars grabbed the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference. He had three straight shutouts during that span, setting a franchise record for longest shutout streak at 233:04. His .934 save percentage was also a franchise record and the eighth-best by any goalie in league history. Bishop was 27-15-2 in 46 games.

The case for Robin Lehner: Lehner had a turnaround season for the ages, overcoming some personal demons and switching teams from Buffalo to the New York Islanders. Lehner thrived in his move across state, posting the second-best save percentage in the league at .930, third in goals-against at 2.13 and tied for fourth with six shutouts. Lehner’s season play really shined between Dec. 18 and Jan. 10 where he won eight straight games. He, along with Thomas Greiss, formed a formidable one-two punch in the Islanders’ crease, one that ultimately helped the Isles into the postseason after losing John Tavares to free agency last summer. The Islanders went from worst in goals-against to first, a feat only done once before in NHL history. Lehner was 25-13-5 in 46 games.

The case for Andrei Vasilevskiy: Vasilevskiy posted 39 wins in 53 games and was a big reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record for most wins in a season with 62. Vasilevskiy won 18 of the first 21 games he appeared in to get Tampa to the feat, including a 10-game winning streak between Feb. 9 and March 5. Vasilevskiy’s best play came after a loss. In fact, he only lost consecutive outings once all season, posting a 13-0-1 record following a defeat. He finished third last season and has a good chance to take home the hardware this year.

MORE 2019 NHL AWARD FINALISTS:
• Selke Trophy
Lady Bing Trophy
Masteron Trophy


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 have plenty of questions to answer after playoff failure

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Not winning the Stanley Cup isn’t what makes the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning a failure.

Sometimes great teams simply don’t win.

There is no shame in losing in the Stanley Cup Final. Losing Game 7 of a conference final is nothing to hang your head over.  If their season had ended in that manner (again), or perhaps even in the second round against Boston or Toronto, there would have been some criticism and some doubt about their ability to finish the job, but the reaction wouldn’t have been anywhere near as harsh as it will be following their four-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Championships are rare, and a great regular season guarantees you nothing when it comes to hardware because there are so many factors that go into being handed that trophy at the end of the playoffs.

What makes this Lightning team a complete and total failure is the fact it simply no-showed in the playoffs. And even saying that may be letting this group off the hook more than they deserve.

This was not the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals outplaying a team for seven games only to lose because a goalie got white hot and played the series of his life. This was not a team playing well and doing things right only to go lose a long, drawn out seven-game series because a bounce or two didn’t go their way.

This was the best regular season team of the modern era, and maybe one of the best regular season teams ever, getting absolutely humiliated in four straight games. This thing was not even close.

Outside of the first 15 minutes of the series where the Lightning jumped out to an early three-goal lead, there was never a point in this series where you felt like they were close to breaking through, or that they were playing their game and simply being beaten by a goalie or some rough puck luck, or that they were going to get themselves right.

They just flat out got whooped.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

A team that scored 325 goals during the regular season, and had three different 40-goal scorers, and outscored teams by more than 100 goals, was thoroughly dominated.

They managed just eight goals in four games. They were outscored by a 19-8 margin for the series, and 19-5 over the final 11 periods.

If you wanted to look for excuses, you could point to the injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the blue line, and especially Hedman’s. He is one of the key cogs that makes the machine run smoothly. But this wasn’t the first time they played without him this season and they never looked that bad without him.

And for as good as Stralman is, they only had him for 47 games during the season and still managed to win 62 games without him.

This is also a team that was deep enough and good enough to be without its starting goalie for an entire month and still went 12-3-0 without him.

You could also point to the fact the Blue Jackets are probably better than their final regular season record because the roster as currently constructed was only together for about a month-and-a-half. Maybe that, combined with the absence of Hedman in Games 3 and 4 and the fact he surely wasn’t healthy in Games 1 and 2, narrowed the gap.

But there is no way it narrowed the gap this much. 

You can’t fault anyone for injuries. But you can fault, say, Nikita Kucherov for taking himself out of Game 3 due to a reckless, selfish play. You can fault the offense for not showing up.

What makes this performance even worse for the Lightning is that it in a lot of ways validated any criticism they may have faced for falling short in recent postseasons.

As I wrote before the playoffs began, the Lightning were under a ton of pressure to win this year (probably more than any other team in the playoffs) not only because of what they did during the regular season, but because of the way they have fallen short in recent postseasons.

Again, this is a team that had a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and then lost three games in a row scoring only two goals. This is a team that in two of the past three years had 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final only to lose both, scoring just three total games in the four games they lost (they scored three goals in their Games 6 and 7 losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and zero goals in their two defeats a year ago to the Washington Capitals).

There is losing, and then there is collapsing.

The Lightning have developed a tendency for collapsing.

Now comes the hard part for the Lightning.

Now they have to figure out why this happened, why this team failed so spectacularly, and what exactly there is to do about it.

There is no denying the talent on this team, and it’s not like the group is without its share of success. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning have won more regular season games than any other team in the NHL, and the third most playoff games. The core that produced all of those wins is still locked in place and under team control, and most of them are still in the prime of their careers. It’s not like this is a situation that is screaming for a massive overhaul, and quite honestly, a massive overhaul is probably the worst thing they could do.

But it’s no longer unfair to ask if something is just off here.

Is it the coach? Is it the players? Or was it simply a team that had been ridiculously close in recent years, falling just short, simply falling on its face at the worst possible time?

In a vacuum any of the Lightning’s recent postseason losses are nothing to be terribly worried about on their own.

That’s sports. Your season is going to end short of a championship far more often than it doesn’t. But to keep losing the way they have, and to keep going out as meekly as they have when they have been in a position of control is something worth talking about.

Simply losing isn’t what is going to define the 2018-19 Lightning, or even this current core of players.

It is the way they have lost that is defining them.

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.

Shocker: Blue Jackets blow out Lightning 5-1 to take 2-0 series lead

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The Columbus Blue Jackets needed to pull off a stunning comeback to capture Game 1. Going up 2-0 in the series against Tampa Bay was a far cleaner affair as the Blue Jackets cruised to a 5-1 victory Friday night.

After winning a record-tying 62 games in the regular season, Tampa Bay came into this game with something to prove, but the Lightning didn’t play like a team that just got a rude wake-up call. Instead, Columbus carried its momentum from Game 1.

Cam Atkinson managed to squeak one through Andrei Vasilevskiy just 5:05 minutes into the game. Rather than answer back, Ondrej Palat took a hooking call at 11:40 of the first that led to Zach Werenski almost immediately scoring on a rocket.

Trying to spark his team, Lightning forward Brayden Point fought with Werenski. It certainly wasn’t a likely matchup, but it didn’t end up being a turning point in the game.

Matt Duchene scored his first career playoff goal early in the second period to put the Blue Jackets up 3-0. Werenski got an assist on that marker to earn the Gordie Howe hat trick. Mikhail Sergachev gave Tampa Bay a sign of life 5:00 into the third when he made it 3-1 and soon after that, Nick Foligno took a tripping penalty to give the Lightning the man advantage.

Tampa Bay had the best power play in the league during the regular season, but the Blue Jackets managed an impressive kill to drain whatever momentum the Lightning had built. From there it was just adding insult to injury as Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin each scored to turn what was already looking like a decisive win into a blowout.

The Blue Jackets spent the final 4:26 minutes on the power play because of Nikita Kucherov‘s boarding major. We’ll have to see if the league feels that one warrants further discipline.

“This is a five-alarm fire. We are facing adversity. Sometimes that’s good to face adversity,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game, per Pierre LeBrun.

What you’ll be hearing a lot about now is the fact that Columbus also started its Round 1 series against the Capitals with back-to-back wins in Washington last year. Of course, the Capitals won the next four games and went on to win the Stanley Cup. For Lightning fans, that’s a reason to remain hopeful. For the Blue Jackets, it’s a reminder that nothing has been decided yet.

Lightning-Blue Jackets Game 3 from Nationwide Arena will be Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN

Ryan Dadoun is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @RyanDadoun.

John Gibson deserves to be Vezina candidate, if not the winner

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If there’s one travesty come June when the NHL’s awards are handed out, it’s that John Gibson won’t be up on stage receiving the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender.

Yes. John Gibson. An NHL goaltender on one of the worst teams in the league, a team that’s fighting for the right to pick first overall rather than raise a second Stanley Cup banner in Anaheim.

It might seem like insanity. Maybe it is.

The Vezina’s three finalists will probably look something like this: Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ben Bishop and Frederik Andersen.

Vasilevskiy, of course, because he’s an incredible goaltender playing on perhaps the best regular-season team in NHL history in the Tampa Bay Lightning. There’s a solid case to be made for a guy with six shutouts, a .927 save percentage and 37 wins entering Friday.

Bishop, because he leads the league with a .933 save percentage and has given a low-scoring Dallas Stars team every opportunity to be in the playoff position they’re in.

Andersen, because despite the milk carton defense in Toronto, has put together an impressive season sans help from his Maple Leafs teammates.

Their numbers are the shiny ones you see when you Google goalie statistics. Their names are atop the rankings of basic goaltending statistics.

They’re all elite goalies, don’t get me wrong, and this is taking nothing away from what they’ve accomplished.

But what John Gibson has done trumps them all.

Gibson’s numbers, on a surface level, look pedestrian. He’s posted a .915 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average in 56 appearances this season. There are several guys ahead of him in that category and likely where the wheels begin to fall off in his Vezina case.

Are the NHL’s 31 general managers, who vote on the Vezina, going to dig much deeper? Probably not, and that’s where Gibson’s case comes to a screeching halt.

Here’s some truth: Gibson has saved more goals above the league average than any other goalie in the NHL this season. His goals-saved above average is 17.8, nearly a full goal and a half above Jaroslav Halak and more than a goal and a half more than Bishop. Andersen? Gibson’s got him beat by over 10 goals. Vasilevskiy? 16.

More truth: Among the 37 goalies this season that have played 1,500 minutes or more, Gibson ranks lowest with an expected save percentage of .913 in 5v5 situations when you factor in the type of shot quality he’s faced. His adjusted save percentage when look at the difference in his actual save percentage of .927 and the expect numbers, you arrive a 1.37, fourth best in the NHL, meaning that Gibson is well above the average of what he should be given the quality of shots he’s faced.

Speaking of quality and the number of shots faced, Gibson has seen more high-danger shots fired his way (299) than any other goalie in the league, and despite this, he’s managed a .823 save percentage, good for ninth best — higher than Andersen and Vasilevskiy. Bishop (.854, 207 shots against) is third, but has seen 92 less high-danger shots.

One more thing: Gibson has seen the fifth-most shots against per 60 minutes played, just slightly behind Andersen, both of whom are well ahead of Bishop and Vasilevskiy.

All these numbers aren’t just for show. They’re important statistics that show just how incredible Gibson’s season has been with the Ducks.

Recency bias won’t help his cause. People will say his season was front-loaded as the Ducks surprised a lot of people with their playoff positioning early on. Does Andersen get the same treatment? Does Vasilevskiy get dinged for the fact he’s blessed by an offensive and defensive juggernaut in front of him?

But don’t blame Gibson because his back broke from carrying the team so hard. Without him, the lowest scoring team in the NHL might be giving the 1974-75 Washington Capitals a run for their money for worst record ever.

Look, all four of these goalies deserve Vezina recognition. There are others, too. Robin Lehner on Long Island, Pekka Rinne in country music’s capital, Marc-Andre Fleury in Sin City.

The point of this exercise is this: often we write off great players on bad teams. Connor McDavid not deserving the Hart Trophy because he plays for the Edmonton Oilers is just one example. The problem with this mindset is we miss the exceptional that gets neglected because of it.

People will brush off a season like Gibson is having, saying his surface statistics are nothing to write home about and will continue along their merry way.

And that’s a shame, because if the Vezina is truly an award for the best goalie in NHL, then Gibson deserves to be, at the very least, in the room in Las Vegas later this June, if not on the stage saying his thank yous.

(Stats courtesy of Corsica)

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’s Vasilevskiy replaces Price on Atlantic Division All-Star roster

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The NHL’s best team will have a third representative at the 2019 All-Star game.

The league announced on Tuesday that Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been added to the Atlantic Division roster in place of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price.

Montreal announced on Monday that Price will be withdrawing from the game so he can rest and recuperate. With Price no longer there, the only way the Canadiens will have a player represent them at the game is if defenseman Shea Weber wins the “Last Men In” fan vote for the game. Price is the second big-name player to pull out of this year’s game, joining Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin who chose additional rest over taking part in the weekend.

Both players will have to miss at least one game immediately before or after the All-Star break.

Based on their on-ice performances this season, Vasilevsky was probably the better choice for the game anyway. A finalist in 2018 for the Vezina Trophy, Vasilevskiy has been great for the Lightning once again this season with a .920 save percentage in 22 appearances. He did miss more than a month due to injury, but has definitely played at an All-Star level when he has been on the ice for the Lightning.

This will be his second consecutive All-Star game after also appearing in the 2018 game. He will be joining teammates Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos at the All-Star weekend in San Jose later this month.

At this point the only other players that seem to be in any real danger of missing the game might be Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel, who has missed a few games due to an upper-body injury, and Vancouver Canucks rookie sensation Elias Pettersson who has been sidelined due to a leg injury. Eichel seems to be on the verge of returning to the lineup any day now so it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that he will still take part. Pettersson is expected to miss at least one or two weeks so his status could still be an issue.

Related: Carey Price pulls out of All-Star Game to rest and recuperate

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.