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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.

Brayden Point is Lightning’s latest steal

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Even though it has not yet resulted in a championship for this current core, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the NHL’s elite teams for more than four years now.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season only the Washington Capitals have won more regular season games, while they have reached the NHL’s final four in three of the past four seasons. The one year they didn’t reach that point (2016-17) injuries to several key players derailed their season and just barely kept them out of the playoffs. Sandwiched around that one tough-luck year was a trip to the Stanley Cup Final and a pair of Eastern Conference Final appearances that resulted in Game 7 losses to the eventual Stanley Cup champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and Washington in 2018).

That success — and it is success — is no accident and is the result of an incredible front office that has consistently stacked the roster with top-tier offensive talent.

After their 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Sunday, they are once again near the top of the NHL standings and looking like they should be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this spring.

Like most contending teams they had some good fortune when it came to being bad at just the right time to land a couple of franchise-changing talents at the top of the draft.

They selected Steven Stamkos No. 1 overall in 2008 and he has been everything they could have hoped for him to be as a front-line center and franchise player.

The very next year they picked Victor Hedman, one of the most complete and well-rounded defenders in the world, with the No. 2 overall pick.

But other than defender Slater Koekkoek and starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (selected 10th and 19th overall respectively in 2012) there is not another player on the current roster that the Lightning used one of their own first-round picks on. The rest of the roster has been assembled through blockbuster trades (Mikhail Sergachev — who was acquired for former third overall pick Jonathan DrouinJ.T. Miller, Ryan McDonagh, Ryan Callahan), free agent signings (Anton Stralman), or later round draft steals.

When it comes to the latter, they seem to have found another one in 22-year-old forward Brayden Point.

Point has been one of the Lightning’s best players this season and after another three-point effort in Sunday’s win is now up to 31 points in 24 games this season.

Following a breakout performance in 2017-18 that saw him finish with 32 goals and 66 total points he is looking like he is on track to smash both numbers. In his past six games alone he has eight goals and 12 total points. That run includes five multi-point games, including that incredible performance in Pittsburgh when he scored three power play goals in only 91 seconds of game-time.

[Related: Brayden Point scores hat trick in 91 seconds]

The Lightning found him in the third-round of the 2014 draft after 78 other players had been picked. Of all the players taken in that draft class, only seven of them have collected more points than he has, while only one of those players (Nashville Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson) was taken outside of the first-round. If you go as far as the top-18 point producers from that draft class only three of them were selected after the 25th overall pick.

For the Lightning to get a legitimate top-line player in the third-round in that class is a tremendous find.

It is also not the first time they have done it over the past few years in building this current roster.

Let’s just look at the rest of their core.

  • Nikita Kucherov was a second-round draft pick, No. 58 overall, in 2011 and is one of only two players from that class to have already topped the 350-point mark for his career. Gabriel Landeskog, the No. 2 overall pick, is the other. He and Kucherov are separated by the slimmest of margins for the top spot from that class when it comes to point production, while Kucherov is one of just four players in the top-15 that year to be taken after the first round. One of those four players is…
  • Ondrej Palat, who is the ninth-leading scorer from that class. The Lightning found him in the seventh-round with the 208th overall selection. That is two of the top-10 scorers in one draft class going to one team, and that team did not use a first-round pick on either one of them.
  • The Lightning signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent in March, 2011. Of all the players taken in the 2010 draft class (where he should have been selected), Johnson’s 277 points would place him ninth among that group. All eight players ahead of him were first-round draft picks, while only two of them (Vladimir Tarasenko at 16th overall, and Evgeny Kuznetsov at 26th overall) were taken after the 15th pick.
  • Yanni Gourde, after finishing sixth in the Calder Trophy voting a year ago, is nearly a point-per-game player through the first quarter of his second season and has already shown enough to convince the team to give him a long-term contract extension.

Including Point, that is five pretty significant players that have all outperformed their draft positions. That is exactly what should pop in your mind when you hear someone referred to as a “steal.”

This kind of analysis can be difficult because there are always a ton of variables as to why a prospect succeeds (or, as the case may be, does not succeed). Maybe it is getting picked in the right environment, or going to the right team, or just getting the right opportunity with the right linemates. Or maybe it is sometimes just a little bit of dumb luck.

There is also a sort of chicken-or-egg element to all of this where you have to consider how much of it is player scouting, and how much of it is player development.

For example, if a team like Tampa knew how good some of these prospects were going to turn out to be, they probably would have taken them sooner in the draft. In other words, if the Lightning knew Nikita Kucherov was going to be — arguably — the best player from his draft class, they probably would have taken him with the 27th pick instead of Vladislav Namestnikov and not given every other team in the league an opportunity to take him instead. And it’s not that Namestnikov turned out to be a bad player, he just hasn’t been Kucherov. They took three other player in that class before Palat. Like everyone else, they completely passed on Johnson and Gourde in their draft years.

So development and coaching (and luck) is also a factor.

But there is one common trait that all of these players share that point to smart drafting by the Lightning.

They are all smaller forwards (or at least what would be considered “undersized), and they were all wildly productive in their pre-NHL careers compared to the rest of their peers in their respective draft years.

Johnson, Gourde, and Point are all among the smallest players in the league, while Kucherov (listed at 5-11, 178) and Palat (5-11, 180) aren’t exactly mountains out there on the ice.

And what about the production? After being a better than point-per-game player for his first three years in the Western Hockey League, Johnson ended up finishing second in scoring in 2010-11 (one point off the lead) and was the league’s leading goal-scorer the year the Lightning signed him.

Gourde won the QMJHL scoring title (by 23 points!) the year before he signed with the Lightning.

Point was a top-15 scorer in the WHL in his draft year when he slid to the third-round.

The Lightning have made a habit of doing this over the years, and it’s not just with these players that have stuck and become key parts of their team. Jonathan Marchessault, now one of the league’s best forwards, spent some time in the Tampa organization with some modest success before blossoming in Florida and Vegas.

Cory Conacher gave the Lightning some strong play during the 2012-13 season before he was later flipped to the Ottawa Senators in a trade for Ben Bishop, who would go on to be an excellent starting goalie for several years in Tampa.

In the end there are a lot of factors that worked out here for the Lightning to be able to assemble all of this talent. They have probably been a little fortunate to have some of these players fall into their laps when they did. But they also clearly targeted the right traits (production, skill), found players that were overlooked by other teams for what were probably the wrong reasons, and then put them in great situations where they could succeed in the NHL.

The result is one heck of a team that is a Stanley Cup contender every single season.

Now they just have to get a little bit of luck on their side when it comes to the playoffs to actually get this core its championship.

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.

Lightning survive barrage to even series with Capitals

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The Eastern Conference Final is now a best-of-3 series after the Tampa Bay Lightning survived a third-period onslaught by the Washington Capitals to even things at 2-2 with a 4-2 win on Thursday night.

The Capitals have been laying siege on Andrei Vasilevskiy and Co. over the past two games, but after jumping out to a 2-0 series lead on the road in Tampa, all of their best efforts have been for naught as the Lightning found a way to gain a lead and then manage to hold onto it for dear life.

The Caps have simply been the better team 5-on-5, but the Lightning picked a good night to figure out how to put pucks in the net in that situation.

Coming into the game, the Lightning’s even strength play produced only three goals. Nearly all of their damage came with the man-advantage and it didn’t help them as they fell in a 0-2 rut and through three games they had been outscored 8-3 at 5-on-5.

[PHT’s Three Stars: Killorn’s goal, Vasilevskiy’s saves lead Lightning in Game 4]

Tampa was a good even strength team during the regular season and their overall CF% has been quite good in the playoffs so far, but they’ve taken a step back in that department in this series.

Brayden Point‘s game-tying goal in the first period and Alex Killorn‘s game-winner in the third were just what the doctor ordered, then.

Killorn’s tally may have been at 5-on-5, but the Caps had just barelykilled off a penalty when the Lightning forward scored.

The goal broke the deadlock after Evgeny Kuzenetsov provided the equalizer in the second frame thanks to some dirty backhand sauce from Alex Ovechkin, who hasn’t scored in either of the losses.

An empty-net goal later and the Lightning fly back home having stolen two from under the Caps’ noses.

Given the volume of shots being thrown Vasilevskiy’s way during Washington’s two home games, the Capitals are probably a little unlucky at the moment.

Vasilevskiy has stopped 36 shots in each of the past two games, both 4-2 wins for the Lightning.

Nicklas Backstrom returned after missing the first three games of the series (and four total) with a hand injury. He played 18:51 and was a minus-one with four shots on goal. Not the return the Capitals would have hoped for from one of the league’s premier set-up men.

It’s going to be a long 48 hours in Washington, a lot of time for both players and fans to stew over what’s happened in this series. The Caps have never won a series when they won the first two games on the road.

They’ve managed to fend off one curse this postseason. It appears a second one awaits now.

The race to two begins on Saturday night in Game 5 (7:15 p.m. ET, NBC).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightning bounce Bruins from playoffs in five games

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The Tampa Bay Lightning will play for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning earned a 3-1 decision in Game 5 on Sunday afternoon against the Boston Bruins, sending the Bruins into hibernation mode after taking the series 4-1.

The series will be largely defined by what the line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were able to accomplish after Tampa’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller took a back seat.

Point scored his third goal of the series to erase David Krejci‘s first-period tally, slotting home after making a patient play around Tuukka Rask.

Point, who finished with seven points in the series, helped the Lightning rebound from their 6-2 Game 1 defeat with a four-point night, a performance that one could argue was a turning point in the series. The Lightning cruised from there, allowing eight goals during their four-game winning streak.

Point’s time-on-ice jumped by over two minutes from Game 1 to Game 5, and it was well-deserved.

Contributions from Tampa’s top line weren’t as relevant as they were against the New Jersey Devils. Kucherov had 10 points in that series but just two points in the second round. Stamkos had a pivotal goal in Game 4 to force overtime, but had only an empty-netter otherwise.

Miller made his presence felt in Game 5, first by knocking David Backes out of the game with a crushing hit in the second period, and then minutes later, offering up the go-ahead goal that stood as the game-winner.

Boston, meanwhile, couldn’t find much in the way of scoring outside of Game 1.

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined four just four goals over the final four games of the series and secondary scoring from the Bruins was virtually non-existent, ultimately spelling the end to Boston’s season.

The Lightning now waits for the winner between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington leads the series 3-2 after a 6-3 win on Saturday.


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