Jon Cooper

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.

Lightning look to grow game, themselves in Sweden

The Tampa Bay Lightning have not performed at a peak level to start the 2019-20 NHL season and a trip overseas might help them solve a few of their problems.

The Bolts will participate in the NHL Global Series and will play in back-to-back games against a divisional opponent, the Buffalo Sabres in Stockholm, Sweden starting Friday (2 p.m. ET; NBCSN).

“Obviously it’s something I’ve never been a part of,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “To be able go to Sweden, somewhere I have never been, and see the fans down there, and play some hockey games is pretty cool, pretty special. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

General manager Julien Brisebois has been a part of a few European adventures throughout his experience working in a front office. During his time with the Hamilton Bulldogs, his team went to Scotland for training camp one year. Additionally, while overseeing the Syracuse Crunch organization (Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate), the club went to France.

“It’s a great experience, it kind of broadens your horizons,” Brisebois told NBC Sports. “It’s a great opportunity for some team bonding, spending some time as a group in a new environment and I know Sweden has a huge base of hockey fans and I am sure it’s going to be a rocking building in Stockholm.”

The Lightning will also have a familiar tour guide in Victor Hedman. The alternate captain and defenseman grew up approximately six hours north of Stockholm in Ornskoldsvik.

“Victor is going to kind of be our social director for the players while we are over there,” Brisebois said. “We have a few activities with our fans as we have a number of fans traveling over. Most of the other social activities including our last night in Stockholm, on a Saturday night, I think Victor is in charge of those plans.”

Hedman missed the previous two games before the trip with a lower-body injury and is hopeful he will get the opportunity to play an NHL game in front of Swedish fans.

“Growing up, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the NHL as much as kids can nowadays,” Hedman told NHL.com. “Both TV and obviously us coming over [are] going to help promote them and even more kids, hopefully, can dream of becoming an NHL player. I’m just looking forward to going back there, seeing kids and friends and family in the stands. Hopefully we can make their dreams come true watching an NHL game.”

Aside from growing the game internationally, the Lightning have some growth of their own to do in-house.

“Lots to work on,” Brayden Point said of the team’s sluggish start. “There are definitely some positives we can take from the start of the season, but there are things we need to be better at and things we need to work on. Hopefully this week [in Sweden] we can address some of those things in practice and keep getting better every day.”

From the start of last year’s regular season, the Lightning’s offense clicked on all cylinders and scored timely goals when it mattered most. This year, consistency has been an issue as the team has put forth only a couple of complete 60-minute efforts during a 6-5-2 start.

“That’s when frustration sets in. When you are working so hard and ‘breaks aren’t going your way’”, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the 5-2 loss to the Islanders. “Eventually with the skill set we have up front, we will score some goals.”

While the Lightning understand the importance of promoting the sport and taking advantage of a great opportunity to play in an exotic destination, the top priority remains intact.

“Ultimately this is a business trip for us,” Brisebois said. “There are four points at stake, we need to go out there and get the job done on the ice.”

Lightning battling through early-season adversity

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There is no reason to rush to judgment after 12 games, but the Tampa Bay Lightning have not looked like themselves.

The Bolts escaped the Prudential Center with a wacky 7-6 overtime win Wednesday but have certainly not played with the poise or structure expected of a Stanley Cup favorite.

“We are working extremely hard, it’s not for a matter of will and effort,” Ryan McDonagh told NBC earlier this week. “We are trying to get on the same page here as far as how we want to play, especially away from the puck. We had a lot of things go right for us in last year’s regular season. But this is a new year, we are trying to find a new identity”

Tampa won the 2019 Presidents’ Trophy with ease, earning 128 points and finishing the year with 21 more points than the next closest team in the standings.

While a 6-4-2 record to open the season is not a doomsday scenario, especially with eight of their first 12 games on the road, the Lightning know they are not executing at the level in which they have come to expect.

“We have to find a way to be aggressive within our structure, I think that is when we are at our best,” McDonagh said. “We understand what makes us successful as a group, it’s about going out there and doing it.”

During their Wednesday matchup against New Jersey, Tampa overcame a two-goal third-period deficit when Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph and Ondrej Palat scored within 13:18 of each other to obtain a 6-5 advantage.

But, Kyle Palmieri of the Devils completed a hat trick with eight seconds remaining in regulation and forced overtime. While Tyler Johnson scored the game-winning goal in the extra session, the Lightning need to play a much more systematic style of hockey in order to reach their ultimate goal.

“We can’t get down on each other and let things snowball,” McDonagh said. “Understand at points in the game we need to be simple and safe and when there is an opportunity to strike, try and make it happen.”

Coach Jon Cooper felt his team suffered from their own success last season when they faced adversity for the first time. The club crumbled in their Round 1 series against the Blue Jackets after clinching a playoff spot in early March.

“It’s a blessing and a curse because you don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time,” he said.

The NHL regular season is an 82-game voyage, and this early skid might end up having a positive impact on the Lightning when it’s all said and done.

“You want to go through some ups and downs as the year goes on, it brings out the true identity of individuals,” McDonagh said. “There is no doubt that we got guys in here that want to push for one another, keep grinding forward and accomplish what we want to accomplish. No doubt in my mind we got the right group of guys in here.”

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.

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.

PHT Face-Off: High-Flying Oilers; What’s wrong with Bolts?

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Heading into today’s action, every team in the NHL has played between three and seven games. That’s not a huge sample size, but it’s enough to spot certain trends. The PHT Face-Off will break down some of the early-season storylines around the league. 

Here we go:

• Arizona can’t score:

The Coyotes made a blockbuster trade to acquire Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Unfortunately for the ‘Yotes, that hasn’t translated into more goals. Through four games, Arizona has found the back of the net a total of seven times. More than half of those seven goals (four) came in their 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night. They scored one goal against Anaheim, none against Boston and two in an overtime loss to Colorado on Saturday night.

The encouraging thing about Arizona’s start, is that they’re ninth in the NHL in Corsi For Percentage at 52.09 percent and ninth in High Danger Chances For percentage at 54.9 percent (stats provided by Natural Stat Trick). You have to think that if they can continue to post similar numbers, the pucks will start going in at some point.

Arizona will head into Tuesday’s game against Winnipeg with a 1-2-1 record. That’s not terrible considering their lack of scoring. The fact that they’ve given up just seven goals helps in a big way.

• What’s wrong with the Lightning?

Last season, the Lightning ran away with the President’s Trophy crown, as they amassed a 62-16-4 record which was good for 128 points. The Calgary Flames, who had the second-highest point total in 2018-19, collected 107 points. That’s a huge gap. Heading into Tuesday’s clash against the Montreal Canadiens on NBCSN, the Bolts have a 2-2-1 record.

Prior to Thursday’s win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, head coach Jon Cooper admitted that his team still felt the pain of being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I would be lying if I didn’t think there was a burden carried over,” Cooper told assembled media in Toronto on Thursday morning. “But we’ve talked to the players about it. We can’t change last year. We’re defending nothing, so let’s go and attack, and wherever people pick us, that’s for everybody else to talk about. It’s not how we feel. As I said before, we have a completely different team. Yes, a lot of our core is the same, but there’s no question, there’s a little bit of a burden you carry from last year. If we’re fortunate enough to make the playoffs and, hopefully, if we do win a round, we’re probably going to hear it until then. So let’s brush it off and play hockey.”

Give Cooper credit for providing us with an honest answer, because most coaches would’ve denied that there was any carry over at all.

Tampa may not put up another 62-win season, but they should be just fine.

• High-Flying Oilers: 

If you look at the list of NHL scoring leaders, you’ll notice that the first two games at the top belong to Edmonton Oilers players. Yes, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have registered 12 and 11 points respectively through their first five games. Also, James Neal is the only player in the league with seven goals this season. That’s a pleasant surprise considering he scored just seven times in 63 games with the Calgary Flames in 2018-19.

Sure, four of those goals came in one game, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s been really, really good for his new team.

Even though there’s no way Neal is going to keep this pace up all season (breaking news: he won’t score 115 goals this year), it’s encouraging to see the Oilers get offensive production from someone other than McDavid and Draisaitl.

It’s early, but the Oilers are sitting atop the Pacific Division standings with a 5-0-0 record.

You can catch McDavid and the gang on NBCSN (9:30 p.m. ET) this Wednesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

• Quiet start for top two picks in 2019:

The first two picks in the 2019 NHL Draft were both able to crack their respective squads. Jack Hughes is with the New Jersey Devils, while Kaapo Kakko is taking a regular shift with the New York Rangers. The expectations were pretty high for both teenagers heading into this year, but the offensive output they’ve provided has been limited.

Through five games, Hughes has failed to pick up a point. We know that he’s fast, we know that he’s talented, but it may take a little bit of time for him to get used to the pace of play and the lack of time and space in the NHL. Head coach Jon Hynes has kept his rookie’s minutes fairly consistent, as he’s played between 14:23 and 17:36 this season.

Don’t get it twisted, it’s not Hughes’ fault that the Devils are 0-3-2 right now. After trading for Nikita Gusev and P.K. Subban, and then signing Wayne Simmonds in free agency, the expectations were that New Jersey would be much better. Expecting their prized rookie to light it up in his first year just isn’t fair. The points will eventually come.

According to Scott Cullen, Hughes is the first first overall pick since Steven Stamkos in 2008 to open his career with no points in five games.

As for Kakko, he collected his first goal/point in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers (he scored the opening goal of the game). Is this the moment that gets him rolling? It’s way too early to tell, but we’ll find out soon enough. Kakko has played two fewer games than Hughes, but their minutes have been similar (Kakko is averaging 15:25/game, Hughes is averaging 15:31/game).

Can Kakko continue to build his Calder Trophy case?

Both players will go head-to-head for the first time on Thursday night on NBCSN (7 p.m. ET).

• Gibson’s Finest: 

The Anaheim Ducks have played three of their first five games on the road, but they managed to go 4-1-0. Their only loss came in Pittsburgh, as they held the highest scoring team in the league to just two goals in a 2-1 defeat. Yes, the Ducks appear to be giving starting goalie John Gibson some help, but he continues to be one of the top goalies in the NHL.

That loss to Pittsburgh was also the only time this season that Gibson has allowed more than one goal in a game, which is totally ridiculous. He has a 3-1-0 record with a 1.26 goals-against-average and a .961 save percentage this season. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but you’d have to think that he’ll be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy if he can keep his team’s season on the rails.

Gibson got the night off against Columbus on Friday, which means he’ll be fresh for tonight’s tough matchup in Boston.

What’s coming up this week?

• A lot of afternoon hockey on Columbus Day, Mon. Oct. 14, starting at 1 p.m. ET

• Lightning vs. Canadiens, Tue. Oct. 15, 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

• Jack Hughes vs. Kaapo Kakko, Thu. Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET( NBCSN)

• Bruins vs. Maple Leafs for the first time since they faced each other in the first round, Sat. Oct. 19, 7 p.m. ET

WEDNESDAY NIGHT HOCKEY
Avalanche vs. Penguins, Wed. Oct. 16, 7 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
Flyers vs. Oilers, Wed. Oct. 16, 9:30 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.