Victor Hedman

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.

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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.

Hedman hopes to play for Tampa Bay against Sabres in Sweden

STOCKHOLM — Victor Hedman has ample motivation to get his banged-up body ready for a regular season game that feels different from any he’s played before.

Hedman was racing against the clock to recover from a lower-body injury in time not to miss a possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play NHL games in his native Sweden.

Although he was not directly declared fit to play, the defenseman said he was ”hopeful” to be ready for a two-game series on Friday and Saturday between his Tampa Bay Lightning and the Buffalo Sabres in the Swedish capital as part of the 2019 NHL Global Series.

”The final decision is tomorrow,” Hedman said after practice on Thursday. ”We’ll see how it goes but (I’m) very hopeful.”

Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper sounded positive.

”I’m hopeful he’ll be in tomorrow,” Cooper said.

A stalwart for Tampa Bay’s defense, Hedman missed the team’s first practice in Stockholm after arrival on Sunday after sustaining the injury on Oct. 29 against the New York Rangers, and things didn’t look good when he didn’t practice on Monday.

Cooper said it was critical for Hedman to start skating on Tuesday. And he made it, determined not just serve as a tourist guide to his teammates during the trip to his homeland as the lone Swede on the team.

”It hasn’t been easy since last week in New York. A lot of stuff has been going through your mind, it’s a lot of worries,” Hedman said. ”Obviously, I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made in the last couple of days. We’ll see what tomorrow’s gonna bring.”

His absence in the last two games was felt, with Tampa Bay allowing 11 goals.

Hedman had nine points – two goals and seven assists – in 11 games before missing games against the New Jersey Devils and the New York Islanders.

He was No. 2 pick in the 2009 draft for Tampa Bay, a year after the Lightning opened the season with two losses to the New York Rangers in in Prague.

The Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2018 might not get another chance to play at home, despite the NHL scheduling games in Europe regularly.

It’s the third straight year – and eighth overall – that the NHL returns to Europe to try to increase its local following in hockey-mad countries including Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.

The Philadelphia Flyers beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 in their season opener in Prague on Oct 4.

Buffalo has five Swedes, including forwards Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson and Victor Olofsson, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and goalie Linus Ullmark, while another one, defenseman Lawrence Pilut, was recalled for the trip from the Rochester Americans.

”You never even dream about that, playing an NHL game in Sweden and having all your family and friends there,” Johansson said. He played in Gothenburg, Sweden, for New Jersey last season against the Edmonton Oilers.

”I feel very fortunate to have done it and even more fortunate to get to do it again,” he said. ”It’s just something that doesn’t happen very often. It’s very special. I don’t think the guys over here get it. They play close to home a lot, but we don’t really get the chance to do it.”

Of the two teams, Buffalo, surprisingly, has been off to a stronger start this season.

Under new coach Ralph Krueger, who took over in the midst of an eight-season playoff drought – the NHL’s longest active streak – the Sabres opened with an 8-1-1 record to match their best start since 2009-10 and lead the Eastern Conference.

However, they are 1-3-1 and have been outscored 15-7 since.

”We’re expecting a real high-level battle from both teams,” Krueger said. ”Tampa’s certainly feeling the same thing as we are. That was our primary focus here. … Let’s use this space to really show the best Sabres hockey possible this weekend.”

The Lightning (6-5-2) are far short of last season’s standard, when Tampa Bay dominated the regular season and tied the NHL record with 62 wins.

”We’re staying positive here,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. ”We realize that with the group we have we’re going to continue to work hard. Hopefully, a trip like this can even bring us closer together as a group and maybe help us moving forward.”

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.”

PHT Morning Skate: Lightning, Sabres prepare for Global Series; New Jersey’s goalie issue

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

David Rittich has shown he’s capable of handling the workload of a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. [Calgary Herald]

• A lower-body injury may keep Victor Hedman out of this weekend’s NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden. He practiced on Tuesday and remains day-to-day. [NHL.com]

• As they enjoy their time in Sweden, the Sabres are hoping for plenty of support this weekend when they play the Lightning. [Buffalo News]

• What to do about the goaltending situation in New Jersey? [TSN]

• The Jets’ top line needs to step up. [Winnipeg Free Press]

Travis Sanheim’s “money in the bank” is paying off for the Flyers this season. [NBC Sports Philadelphia]

• Why NHL teams should pass on bridge deals and take smart gambles on young players. [Sportsnet]

• The ugly, gory, bloody secret life of NHL dentists. [ESPN]

• A year of dealing with concussions by one beer league player. [The New Yorker]

• Are the hot starts for the Canucks and Coyotes for real? [Featurd]

Alex Goligoski is off to an excellent start for the Coyotes. [Five for Howling]

• Washington D.C. has become a district of champions. [Japers’ Rink]

• A fun look at the competitive fantasy football league inside the Wild dressing room. [Pioneer Press]

• Finally, here’s University of Minnesota’s Amy Potomak helping continue a strong week for highlight-reel goals:

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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.