Nikita Kucherov

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 beat Predators in surprisingly nasty OT battle

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The Tampa Bay Lightning and Nashville Predators are two teams that didn’t expect to find themselves out of the playoff picture in December. Both teams showed desperation during Tuesday’s tight, tenacious game, with the Lightning coming out on top with a 3-2 overtime win.

Lightning’s big guns come through; big opportunity brewing for Bolts

Tampa Bay’s top players ended up making the difference.

Victor Hedman began the scoring, maintaining his point-per-game pace (23 in 23). The biggest difference-makers were Nikita Kucherov (overtime game-winner, assist) and Steven Stamkos (two assists) in what was a feisty contest.

The Lightning ended a three-game losing streak with this win, and could be set for a surge with a heavy run of home games coming up. Seven of their next eight games take place in Tampa Bay, and they also play 10 of their next 12 at home.

Feel the hate

Is there some secret beef between the Predators and Lightning? These two teams were downright nasty at times on Tuesday night, to the point that you wonder if all of the pro wrestling cross-promotion caused unexpected feuds.

(Audience members shouting “shoot” gets some new meaning.)

There were fights, angry moments after whistles, and more than a few controversial moments. Predators fans and players weren’t happy with certain calls, expecting Erik Cernak to get the same sort of major penalty treatment that Ryan Johansen received for his elbow on Brayden Point.

However you feel about specific calls, it sure seemed like the two teams had hard feelings against each other:

Powerful Predators penalty kill

Considering Nashville’s dreadful 2018-19 power play, and the Lightning’s outstanding man advantage for some time now, you’d think the Predators might be toast during a game where Tampa Bay received a five-minute opportunity.

Instead, the Predators went 1-for-4 on the power play, and managed to keep Tampa Bay 0-for-3, which was even worse when you considering that major chance.

Goaltending factored into the not-so-explosive power plays, mind you, including Pekka Rinne making some impressive saves (including on Steven Stamkos on multiple PP chances). The Predators’ PK didn’t earn Nashville the win, but they’re a big reason why they managed a point.

Healthy return

After sitting for seven games as a healthy scratch, Kyle Turris also stood as a big reason why Nashville managed a point. Turris scored a goal and an assist for the Predators in his first game back, and generally created a lot of nice opportunities for the Preds.

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.

There’s plenty to be thankful for in hockey in 2019

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It’s Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and it’s a quiet slate with only one game tonight. That leaves plenty of time for turkey, sides and lots and lots of dessert.

With it being a day to give thanks, some of the the NBCSports.com NHL staff wanted to say what we’re thankful for in 2019.

Please do let us know what you’re thankful for in the comments.

Sean Leahy, PHT Writer

Jaromir Jagr. He’s still playing hockey at age 47 and hopefully is able to fulfill his promise of playing beyond 50. His second tenure in the NHL ended abruptly thanks to injury, but No. 68 continues to give us a tiny slimmer of hope he may want to make another comeback before he hits 60.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s must-watch TV when those two are on the ice, especially in overtime when you know Dave Tippett is playing them for its entirety.

Offside reviews. Because they continue to suck the life out of games and bring people over to the side of hoping one day a “no offside” policy is installed, helping bump up offense around the league.

• NHL teams going retro. Whenever a team brings back a retro jersey design that everyone loves, they’re basically saying, “Sorry for all those crappy ones we put out since we originally debuted these beauties years ago!”

• The spreading out of outdoor hockey. Who would have thought a decade ago we’d see an outdoor game in Texas? Maybe there’s one coming to Carolina in the year or two. Vegas? Florida? The league is expanding the list of areas that may host an outdoor game, which is a good thing. It’s a different vibe in person, a fun one, and more fans around the NHL should be able to experience that.

James O’Brien, PHT Writer

I’m thankful for the Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe. They feel a lot like a wild turkey allowed to roam free after being caged for far too long. Will they eventually prove that they can fly? We’ll see, but it will be fun to watch them try.

The sheer speed of Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, and how even micromanaging coaches can’t really slow them down. They basically warp everything on the ice like Sauron on a battlefield.

Scott Charles, PHT Writer

• Dave Tippett. Connor McDavid is a generational talent and deserves to be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs year in and year out. For too long, the Edmonton Oilers would miss the postseason preventing the most talented player from reaching his full potential. Every NHL fan does not have to root for the Oilers, but seeing the brightest star have the opportunity to play in the most critical moments is good for spectators of the NHL. Hopefully Leon Draisaitl and McDavid have the chance to add to Edmonton’s rich history.

• New Video Review Rules. I am especially grateful that coaches cannot challenge plays without weighing the risk of a penalty. In the past, anyone could challenge a play without any consequence and often requested reviews if the play was close and a call might go their way if the stars were aligned. However, now a coach must believe he is right before forcing a delay in the action.

Adam Gretz, PHT Writer

I am thankful for Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith playing so good in the Edmonton net that we might finally get to see Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl play in the playoffs again and shine on the NHL’s biggest stage.

Also for David Pastrnak leading the league in goals and actually allowing one of my bold predictions to finally come true.

Michael Finewax, Rotoworld Hockey Editor

That the NHL and NHLPA decided in September not to reopen the CBA, allowing for NHL hockey to be uninterrupted through the 2021-22 season.

That the person drafting first picked Nikita Kucherov this season in one of my leagues, allowing me to take Connor McDavid.

NBC Sports presents the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown this Black Friday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC, when league-leading goal scorer David Pastrnak and the Atlantic Division-leading Boston Bruins host Artemi Panarin and the New York Rangers, marking the first of 12 NHL games that will air on NBC during the 2019-20 regular season.

Mike Emrick, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call the 2019 NHL Thanksgiving Showdown. NBC Sports brings NHL Live on the road for Friday’s game, with Kathryn Tappen hosting studio coverage on-site from TD Garden alongside analysts Keith Jones and Mike Milbury.

You can watch a livestream of the game here.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Appreciating Stamkos’ underrated career at 400 goals

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Calling Steven Stamkos “underrated” never really feels right, but you might argue that his greatness is “too easily forgotten.”

Maybe you can chalk it up to Alex Ovechkin‘s even-more-impressive goal-scoring pyrotechnics, or perhaps to some mid-career injuries that diluted some of his career peaks, but either way, Stamkos’ career achievements can sneak up on you.

Take scoring 400 goals, for example.

Stamkos hit that mark in his last game, and with Tuesday’s Lightning – Blues contest soon to air on NBCSN (livestream link), this seems like a great time to consider what we’ve seen from Stamkos, and what else we might see going forward.

Rare company

Stamkos didn’t just hit 400 goals in Tampa’s Nov. 16 loss to the Winnipeg Jets; he also did it before age 30 (he’ll turn 3-0 on Feb. 7). Less than 20 players have reached 400 goals before age 30.

He’s one of only nine active players to hit 400, and did so the second-quickest among those nine, managing the feat in just 763 games. (Alex Ovechkin is first, getting there, somehow, in just 634 GP). Stamkos is also only the 98th player to reach 400+ goals, period.

Stamkos’ .52 goals-per-game average places him at 16th all-time among players with at least 300 games played, by Hockey Reference’s measures. That average is higher than the likes of Guy Lafleur (.50) and Eric Lindros (.49).

With 786 points in those 763 games, Stamkos ranks ninth among active players, and his 1.03 ppg average fittingly ties him with teammate Nikita Kucherov for sixth-best among active players.

Stamkos is a two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner, and became a rare 60-goal scorer in 2011-12. Pretty lofty stuff.

And, naturally, it’s not all in the past.

Stamkos comes into Thursday’s game on a tear, having generated a five-game point streak (two goals, six assists). He already has 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists) in 17 games this season. The 2018-19 season ranks among his best, too, with 45 goals and a career-high 98 points.

[COVERAGE OF BLUES-LIGHTNING BEGINS AT 7 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Passing fancy

It’s a bit absurd to ding Childhood Stamkos for not having much of a shot, but it’s kind of an adorable way to illustrate the point that the Lightning forward has grown his game over the years — which might come in handy if his shot becomes slightly less terrifying.

“When he was a kid, he couldn’t shoot,” his father, Chris Stamkos, told The Athletic’s Joe Smith (sub required) in a great story about Stamkos’ shot. “He could skate and pass, but he couldn’t shoot.”

Stamkos’ former partner-in-crime Martin St. Louis praised Stamkos to Smith, stating that Stamkos isn’t just a “one-trick pony.”

There was some concern that Stamkos’ shot might have been diminishing, but his 45 goals quieted a lot of worries. Normally a 19.2 shooting percentage would make you think fluke, but with a career average of 16.9, maybe he still has time as a an elite sniper?

Some of this comes down to the inevitable drive to create plays for Nikita Kucherov. Of course Stamkos will start to get his playmaking to sniping ratio closer to 1:1 when he’s paired with a winger who’s arguably already even more dangerous than him, right?

After all, his shot volume is still there.

Overall, his partnership with Kucherov should be heartening for the Lightning when it comes to Stamkos’ future. If Stamkos does indeed become less dangerous at sniping as he passes 30 — a common thing for mortal snipers, aka those not named Ovechkin — then he can conceivably tweak the dials to set up Kucherov more. He’s found quite the player to grow old with, as Kucherov and Stamkos even fit each other as left and right-handed shots respectively. It’s the ideal mix for one-timers, basically making them the hockey equivalent of a couple where one spouse prefers drumstick chicken wings while the other digs the flats.

Evolving game

Again, Stamkos has found ways to improve his overall game, which is promising if his scoring does drop off.

Amusingly, Stamkos noted how low his faceoff rating was when EA Sports named him the cover star for NHL ’12, and we’ve seen his acumen in that area rise — probably coincidentally. Stamkos’ early career faceoff percentage was just 46.4. Stamkos improved gradually over the years, and has really took off in that area since 2015-16, winning 53.7 percent of his draws. This season, Stamkos has won a whopping 60 percent.

While the impact of faceoff dominance can be overblown, the point is really that Stamkos continues to refine his game. He won’t be mistaken for a Selke frontrunner anytime soon, but by becoming more well-rounded, Stamkos faces a strong chance of mitigating the aging process by bringing more to the table than just scoring.

***

So, yeah, it can be easy to forget how special Stamkos is. Maybe winning that elusive Stanley Cup might shine that spotlight on him a bit more?

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Most dangerous duos in the league

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In this week’s PHT Power Rankings we take a break from ranking all 31 teams and instead look at some of the best, and most dangerous forward duos in the league.

We are looking at forward duos that are regularly used together on a line and can not only produce offense, but help carry their teams and drive play.

Which duos make the list? Let’s get to the rankings!

1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. There is not a duo in the NHL right now that is even close to these two.

Individually, the are the top-two point producers in the league since the start of the 2018-19 season and both are among the top-three in goals scored.

When they are on the ice together during 5-on-5 play the past two seasons the Oilers have outscored their opponents by an 82-57 margin (when neither is on the ice the Oilers have been outscored 67-97) while they have been on the ice for more than 55 percent of the Oilers’ total goals (all situations) during that time. As they go, the Oilers go. It is not a stretch to say this is the most dominant offensive duo the league has seen since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in Pittsburgh. Breaking them up should be a fireable offense.

2. David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins. These two are so good that they have made Patrice Bergeron (still one of the best players in the league) arguably the third best player on his own line.

While Bergeron does drive a lot of the defensive play and plays the shutdown role to near perfection at center, the Pastrnak-Marchand duo on the wings is behind the offense. So much so that Pastrnak and Marchand have scored goals at a higher rate the past three years when they are playing without Bergeron than they do with him.

Goals per 60 minutes since start of 2017-18 season:

  • Pastrnak, Marchand, and Bergeron together: 3.64
  • Pastrnak and Marchand without Bergeron: 3.89
  • Marchand and Bergeron without Pastrnak: 3.49
  • Pastrnak and Bergeron without Marchand: 2.75

That is not to say the team would be better off without Bergeron centering the line, it is just a testament to how good Pastrnak and Marchand are offensively.

3. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Colorado Avalanche. They have been to the Avalanche what the McDavid-Draisaitl duo has been to the Oilers. Top producers individually, completely dominant as a duo, and until this season the line that had to carry what was an incredibly top-heavy team. The Avalanche did serious work to address those depth concerns over the summer and it’s helped them stay afloat in the current absence of Rantanen (and the third member of that line, Gabriel Landeskog). When MacKinnon gets his regular wingers back the Avalanche should be considered one of the top Stanley Cup contenders.

4. Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel, Pittsburgh Penguins. It is easy to write off Guentzel’s success as being a product of playing next to Crosby, but here is the thing about that: A lot of players, many of them very talented, have spent significant time alongside Crosby throughout his career and have never approached the level of production that Guentzel has. He is the consistent finisher that Crosby never really had earlier in his career, and together they are the biggest driver of the Penguins’ offense.

5. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. These two have really emerged as top-tier offensive players the past two years. Barkov still carries the “underrated” label even though everyone around the league knows exactly how good he is (you should know how good he is, anyway). The truly underrated one in this duo at this point is Huberdeau. Both players are among the top-10 scorers in the league the past two years and have been outstanding this year. If Sergei Bobrovsky ever plays like the big money goalie the Panthers signed him to be this duo will take the Panthers to the playoffs.

6. Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning. They haven’t been quite as dominant as they were a year ago, but no one in Tampa Bay has been just yet. Plus, they are still both around a point-per-game offensively and they are carrying the play when the Lightning use them together (3.50 goals per 60 minutes; dominant possession numbers). They could be on the verge of a breakout at any moment.

7. Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, Vegas Golden Knights. This duo became a thing last year after Vegas’ in-season trade for Stone last season, and it has been their best line ever since. Stone is one of the best all-around wingers in the NHL and should once again get serious Selke Trophy consideration, while Pacioretty still has the lightning quick release that can make him a 30-goal scorer. These two may not score as many goals as some of the duos on this list, but they control the pace of play and dictate the game as well as any duo in the league.

8. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals. You might consider this a nod to past dominance or their reputation, but these two still have it. The Capitals mix their line combinations up a bit (Ovechkin has spent a lot of time in recent years with both Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center) but this is still the one that seems to work the best. Both players are in their 30s and still on track to put up huge numbers this season for a Capitals team that looks like it could win another Stanley Cup.

9. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson, Vancouver Canucks. This duo might change everything in Vancouver. The Canucks have had comically bad luck in the draft lottery during this rebuild, never picking higher than fifth despite being one of the league’s worst teams the past few years. They have still managed to find some incredible building blocks with their top picks including Pettersson, Boeser, and Quinn Hughes. The Boeser-Pettersson duo is a must-see every night and has helped rapidly  accelerate the rebuild. The only thing that has held them back so far in their young careers are injuries.

10. Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames. Going from Carolina to Calgary has completely turned around Lindholm’s career thanks to the instant chemistry he found alongside Gaudreau. In the three years prior to his move to Calgary he scored just 38 goals in 235 games. He already has 37 goals in only 104 games with the Flames. Since the trade the Flames have outscored teams 68-48 with the Gauderau-Lindholm duo on the ice and averaged close to three-and-a-half per 60 minutes.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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.