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Vasilevskiy back for Lightning after Domingue’s solid stretch of play

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Andrei Vasilevskiy will be back in goal Thursday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Toronto Maple Leafs. It will be the netminder’s first appearance since a fractured foot knocked him out of the lineup a month ago. 

That loss could have spelled danger, even for a strong team like the Lightning; and general manager Julien BriseBois could have gone out and plucked a goalie off waivers or made a trade for the short-term. Instead, they rode Louis Domingue (and Eddie Pasquale for one start) to a 12-3-0 record and enter this matchup between the NHL’s top two teams on a seven-game winning streak.

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It was Nov. 2017 when the Lightning acquired Domingue from the Arizona Coyotes as an insurance policy. When Vasilevskiy’s backup at the time, Peter Budaj, got hurt, Domingue stepped into the No. 2 role and ended up starting 11 games last season.

Having already been an NHL starter in Arizona and having worked previously with Lightning goalie coach Frantz Jean, it seemed like a good fit. Domingue’s play in 2017-18 earned him a two-year, $2.3M extension and he’s proven to be worth every penny so far. Not bad for a guy whose career was in limbo just before he landed in Tampa.

In Domingue’s 14 starts since Vasilevskiy’s injury he’s posted a .919 even strength save percentage while facing the second-most shots at 5-on-5 (374) over that span. It hasn’t always been pretty — he’s allowed three or more goals eight times in that stretch — but when you’re on the NHL’s top-scoring team, they’ll bail you out on a bad night more often than not.

“When your starter goes down and you know this isn’t a couple of days thing, it’s a month thing, now you’re looking saying ‘Holy cow, I’m going to be starting a bunch of games in a row here,'” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “So mentally there’s a hurdle there to get over. He was probably sitting there saying I’ve got to make every single save. When you start putting a little too much pressure on yourself… he just needed to relax a little bit and understand we’ll get some goals, just make the saves when you can and if you can help bail us out sometimes, do it. That’s what he’s done of late and been really confident in net.”

Also, during most of his run, Domingue wore a neat mask during Hockey Fights Cancer month which featured drawings done by kids being treated at Children’s Cancer Center of Tampa Bay.

As Vasilevskiy returns, the Lightning now know they have a proven No. 2 behind him who can instill confidence in teammates when he gets the call. And with Vasilevskiy having started 64 games last season, Domingue’s presence will allow Cooper to rest his starter when needed — an issue that came up last season.

“It’s a team sport and the reason you’ve got guys in line waiting to play is in case injuries happen,” said Cooper. “You don’t want anybody get to hurt, ever, but you can lose your starting goaltender for a month or so. That’s 15 or 16 games. Somebody’s got to fill that void and step in and Louis has done an unreal job.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

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.

Domingue, Kucherov lead Lightning past Blackhawks

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Look, when Andrei Vasilevskiy went down with a broken foot, most people would have expected a bit of a downturn in the crease.

Underestimating Louie Domingue? Guilty as charged.

Dominique’s save percentage won’t woo the masses, but he’s made enough key saves enough times in between the pipes for the Lightning that he’s won four of six starts since Vasilevskiy went down on Nov. 10.

That’s all he’s really been asked to do given the rate the Lightning put pucks past opposition goalies.

Domingue was stellar in Friday’s 4-2 win for the Lightning against the Chicago Blackhawks on NBCSN, stopping 30-of-32 for his seventh win of the season.

Tampa had three goals in the first 10:05 of the opening frame on Friday against Chicago, helped on each one of them by an assist from Nikita Kucherov.

Tyler Johnson fired home back-to-back markers and Brayden Point notched his 15th of the season before the Blackhawks could even get into the game.

Point finished with a goal and an assist in the game and is now on 28 points, two back of Kucherov for the team lead.

Point would have eclipsed Kucherov if not for the latter’s continued dominance on the scoresheet. No. 86’s white-hot run extended with his hat trick of apples. He now has two goals and 10 helpers in a five-game point streak.

Artem Anisimov injected a bit of life into Chicago just 1:05 later, but the Lightning would respond through Ryan Callahan just before the 15-minute mark to regain the three-goal cushion.

Callahan’s goal was especially filthy, as you can see here:

Jonathan Toews, who is on a bit of a tear recently, made it 4-2 with his 11th goal of the season, extending his own point streak to five games.

He’s now up to 20 points in 23 games so far and is one pace to hit the 60-point mark for the first time in four years.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

WATCH LIVE: Lightning host Blackhawks on NBCSN

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Improvement has been there, but there’s plenty of work to do for new Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton. Since the 0-6-2 slump that led to Joel Quenneville’s firing, Chicago is 2-3-2 under the new bench boss, which has featured the team’s top line providing a big offensive push.

In Colliton’s seven games behind the bench, Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have scored six goals and recorded 16 points. The rest of the Blackhakws have totaled six goals and 20 points.

“If we play them together, they’ve got to produce. But sometimes when you spread them out, no one produces,” Colliton explained about putting the three together. “By loading them up, it puts some pressure on them. But hopefully they play so well, it doesn’t matter who has the puck — they’re making plays, they break through anyway, no matter who they’re playing against. That’s what we ask of them, and so far they’re coming through for us.”

The Lightning beat the Florida Panthers Wednesday to move to within two points of the top spot in the NHL. The dynamic offense scored seven goals for the third time this season, keeping them atop the league with a 3.73 goals per game average.

Goaltender Louis Domingue has made five starts since Andrei Vasilevskiy broke his foot last week. Tampa has won three of those games with the netminder posting a .939 even strength save percentage.

“He’s winning hockey games for us,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “[H]e’s given us a chance to win games and he’s played well.”

[WATCH LIVE – 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Friday, November 23rd, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Blackhawks-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon Saad – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Nick SchmaltzArtem AnisimovAlex DeBrincat
Alexandre FortinDavid KampfDominik Kahun
Chris KunitzLuke JohnsonMarcus Kruger

Duncan KeithGustav Forsling
Erik GustafssonBrent Seabrook
Brandon ManningJan Rutta

Starting goalie: Corey Crawford

LIGHTNING
Yanni GourdeSteven StamkosJ.T. Miller
Tyler JohnsonBrayden PointNikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Victor HedmanDan Girardi
Ryan McDonaghErik Cernak
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Louis Domingue

Rick Peckham (play-by-play) and Brian Engblom (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Blackhawks-Lightning from Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

NHL on NBCSN: Blackhawks visit Tampa to take on first-place Bolts

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Friday night’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Jeremy Colliton era has gotten off to a mediocre start in Chicago, as they’re 2-3-2 in his first seven contests as an head coach. The ‘Hawks are coming off a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. They’ll finish their weekend off in Florida on Saturday night.

“We played hard,” Colliton said after the loss. “I thought the effort was there, and we looked like we were going to climb back into it multiple times during the game. Just some self-inflicted wounds there that made it difficult against a Cup winner… we’re good enough. We have a good enough team. We’ve just got to tighten up a little bit. These are things we can control.”

Colliton has been able to rely on his top offensive performers, but the supporting cast has struggled to produce. Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have combined for six goals and 16 points, while the rest of the team has six goals and 20 points during the same stretch.

Toews, in particular, has had a nice rebound season. The 30-year-old has 10 goals and nine assists through 22 games this season. That puts him on pace to score 37 goals in 2018-19. He’s scored 20 and 21 goals over the last two seasons.

“I’ve been through some droughts early in the year the last few years, and it’s not that it hurts your confidence so much as you go into games a little too calculated, instead of just going out there and playing… that’s why this is the top level of the game,” said Toews. “It’s never supposed to be easy, and there’s always something to learn and some way you can grow. For me, it’s learning from trends and patterns that emerge in your game and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got to correct this or improve that.’ You’re always looking for ways to get better, and to get that good feeling in your game.”

The Lightning are currently in top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with a record of 15-6-1. Despite not having Andrei Vasilevskiy in their lineup, the Bolts have won three of their last four games with Louis Domingue between the pipes.

“He’s winning hockey games for us,” head coach Jon Cooper said of Domingue. “You’ve got to feel for him at the end there (on Wednesday), we give up that power-play goal because a two looks a lot better than a three. But he’s given us a chance to win games and he’s played well.”

Tampa is coming off a 7-3 win over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night. In that game, Steven Stamkos managed to pick up a goal and three assists. It was an encouraging performance from a player that had just two assists in five games. The 28-year-old has seven goals and 14 assists in 22 games this season.

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.