Tag Archives: Nikita Kucherov

Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-19 Season Preview

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Tampa Bay Lightning

54-23-5, 113 points, 1st in the Atlantic Division

Lost in the Eastern Conference Final to WSH, 4-3

Additions: F Andy Andreoff (acquired from LA), D Cameron Gaunce

Subtractions: F Carter Ashton (signed, KHL), D Mathew Bodie (signed, KHL), G Peter Budaj (traded to LA), F Erik Condra (signed with DAL), F Alex Gallant (signed with VGK), F Chris Kunitz (signed with CHI), F Matthew Peca (signed with MTL), D Andrej Sustr (signed with ANA)

Still Unsigned: D Jamie McBain

Re-signed: F Adam Erne, D Slater Koekkoek, F Kevin Lynch, F Cedric Paquette

Offseason Analysis: The 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning had their best season in franchise history. Well, regular season, that is. Jon Cooper led his team from behind the bench to a 54-23-5 record (113 points) and the first seed in the Eastern Conference all the way to the 2018 Eastern Conference Final against the Washington Capitals– their former division rival in what was once the Southeast Division.

It was their first postseason meeting since 2011 and the Bolts had home ice advantage in a Game 7. What could possibly go wrong? Washington was never supposed to get past the Second Round, let alone beat the Pittsburgh Penguins en route to landing in the Eastern Conference Final– plus Alex Ovechkin was always criticized for his Game 7 play in his career– and the Lightning had all of their offensive weapons, including Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

But Stamkos had no points in Game 7 against Washington, similar to the last five Game 7s he’s played. In six career Game 7s, Stamkos is pointless. Both literally and figuratively, if you may.

Tampa was shutout on home ice and their 2018 postseason run came to a crashing halt, one win shy of reaching their second Stanley Cup Final in three years.

For a team that’s made the Eastern Conference Final in three of the last four calendar years (2015, 2016 and 2018)– they’ve only gotten better, yet they haven’t had the results they’ve wanted (or expected) by now.

Steve Yzerman walked into the Lightning front office with Stamkos and Victor Hedman already on the roster, he left its day-to-day duties having drafted Kucherov (2011) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (2012), while signing an undrafted Tyler Johnson and acquiring Ryan Callahan, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller over the years.

Yzerman’s seamless transition from Tampa’s face of the franchise star in Martin St. Louis to Stamkos, Kucherov and Co. was destined to win a Cup while the former face of the Detroit Red Wings superstar was at the helm of operations.

But Yzerman stepped down as General Manager, leaving the duties of cap management and roster creation to now former assistant GM Julien BriseBois earlier this month.

BriseBois’ transition to power will be peaceful, as Yzerman was sure to lock up core members of the roster in Kucherov and McDonagh to extensions beginning in the 2019-20 season this offseason.

It’d be unfair to grade BriseBois’ offseason maneuvers over the last 16 days at the same weight as the rest of the GMs in the league, but it’s worth noting– neither Yzerman nor BriseBois were able to snag Erik Karlsson in a trade with the Ottawa Senators.

Instead, the biggest prize on the trading block this offseason went to the San Jose Sharks– a team the Lightning can only face in the postseason in the Stanley Cup Final. If they make it that far.

Yzerman chose not to re-sign Chris Kunitz and Andrej Sustr, seeing the former as too old for Tampa’s core and the latter as an expendable asset that was a healthy scratch most nights. He did, however, re-sign glue guy forwards Adam Erne and Cedric Paquette, as well as defender Slater Koekkoek to one-year bridge deals.

Their successful roster is largely intact, despite trading backup goaltender Peter Budaj to the Los Angeles Kinds for forward Andy Andreoff early this summer, but as Cooper seeks to decrease Vasilevskiy’s workload, Budaj’s 3.77 goals against average and .876 save percentage in eight games last season weren’t going to cut it– even with his injuries.

Budaj’s back with the Ontario Reign (AHL) after Jack Campbell beat him out for the backup job behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Louis Domingue looks to improve on his 2.89 GAA and .914 SV% in 12 appearances with the Lightning last season, after going winless in seven appearances with the Arizona Coyotes (4.33 GAA, .856 SV%) before being acquired by Tampa.

Budaj’s eight appearances and Domingue’s 12 games in a Bolts uniform left Vasilevskiy to suit up for a career-high 65 games last season. He had a 2.62 GAA and a career-high .920 SV% in what was a Vezina Trophy finalist year with a 44-17-3 record.

While Vasilevskiy is one of the top-starting netminders in the league, 65 games played in the regular season, plus a maximum 28 potential games in the postseason is nearly 100 games of hockey. Multiply that by 60 minutes and, well, you get the point (hopefully).

Cooper has to rely on Domingue and his defense to reduce the minutes Vasilevskiy has to stand on his feet (or head) in order to keep his number one goaltender from getting fatigued.

Goaltending is all about finding that sweet spot– both in the rhythm of the game while making saves and in the ebbs and flows of the season-long schedule (including the possibility of a deep postseason run).

Offseason Grade: C+

So that’s it really.

Tampa didn’t create a mega-defense, because they didn’t get Karlsson. San Jose did.

They didn’t cause a disturbance in the Force with two potential No. 91s that would’ve seen John Tavares assume a new identity on the roster, because the Toronto Maple Leafs signed the biggest free agent on the market.

And that’s okay.

For Tampa, an “average” offseason meant sticking with their guys– the ones that reached the Final in 2015, almost reached it in 2016 and were brought in for the Conference Final run in 2018. Other than nailing down a backup goalie, the Bolts are ready to defend their top of the table standing in the Atlantic Division.

Columbus Blue Jackets 2018-19 Season Preview

Columbus Blue Jackets

45-30-7, 97 points, fourth in the Metropolitan Division

First Wild Card in the East, lost in First Round to Washington (4-2)

Additions: G Jean-Francois Berube, D Adam Clendening, D Tommy Cross, LW Anthony Duclair, C Liam Foudy (’18 1st round pick, signed ELC), C Ryan MacInnis, C Riley Nash, D Dillon Simpson

Subtractions: LW Matt Calvert (signed with COL), D Taylor Chorney (signed with HC Lugano), D Ian Cole (signed with COL), D Cameron Gaunce (signed with TB), D Jack Johnson (signed with PIT), C Mark Letestu (unsigned UFA), RW Thomas Vanek (signed with DET)

Re-signed: RW Oliver Bjorkstrand (3-year, $2.5M), LW Boone Jenner (4-year, $3.75M), D Ryan Murray (1 year, $2.825M)

Offseason Analysis: The Jackets enjoyed a successful, if not slightly underwhelming ’17-’18 campaign, where all-time high hopes were somewhat cooled by some notable underachieving seasons from players like Boone Jenner, Brandon Dubinsky and even captain Nick Foligno. Fortunately these were offset somewhat by terrific years from players like rookie standout Pierre-Luc Dubois, emerging Norris Trophy candidate Seth Jones, and superstar Artemi Panarin. They’d close out the regular season on a 15-4-2 run over their final 21 games to lose out to Philadelphia for the final Metropolitan Division spot by a single point, instead drawing the first Wild Card spot and a date with the Washington Capitals.

The Jackets shocked everyone by taking Games 1 and 2 of the series in Washington, both in thrilling overtime fashion, to head back home with a 2-0 hold on the series. Then came “The Promise”. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the media they’d be back in Washington for Game 5 with the series tied. They did just that, and rode the momentum on through the Blue Jackets, and everyone else in their way as they went on to grab the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This was no consolation prize in the minds of Jackets fans, though, as losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions is sort of a calling card in Columbus’ recent history. *throws another dart at a poster of Sidney Crosby*

Now, with another disappointing playoff performance on their record, a list of notable pending free agents on their plate, and the ever-looming Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin contract situations on their hands, the Columbus brass faced a rather trying offseason. But, as has been his MO over the years, GM Jarmo Kekalainen wasn’t about to panic. Or really show any sort of human emotion of any kind. I think that’s just a Finnish thing.

First came the NHL draft, where once again ‘J.K.’ and his staff went a bit off the board for their first round pick, drafting speedster Liam Foudy 18th overall. Generally projected as a very-late first or early second round pick, Foudy caught the eye of the CBJ scouting staff for his ability to inject speed into their lineup, something it could definitely use. While likely to spend at least another year in Juniors, Foudy did ink his entry level contract over the summer.

When free agency opened, the Jackets very quickly lost longtime roster stalwarts Jack Johnson (fans weren’t that upset) and Matt Calvert (fans held memorial services), along with rentals Thomas Vanek, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu. Kekalainen quickly nabbed penalty-killing specialist Riley Nash to replace Letestu’s bottom-six depth. Initially his $2.75 million cap hit over the next three years seemed slightly steep for a guy who projects as a third-line center at best, but with the raised cap and resulting numbers we saw on some other signings/re-signings over the summer, the deal has aged fairly well. A few days later the Jackets would pick up troubled youngster Anthony Duclair on a league-minimum $650 thousand, one-year deal. Likened to the ‘show me’ contract given to Sam Gagner by the Jackets a few years ago that paid dividends, Columbus is hedging bets on Duclair’s willingness to shed some of the baggage he’s accumulated over the past few seasons and work hard to get back to being the player that scored 20 goals and 44 points as a 20-year-old. If he can, he’s an absolute steal. If he can’t, he’s barely even a blip on the salary cap radar, and could be placed on waivers without much concern.

Kekalainen decided to let his organizational depth fill the rest of the vacancies in the roster (which has definitely created one of the more intriguing training camps to watch). Instead, he invested a good portion of his time and effort over the summer into attempting to secure the future services of Artemi Panarin and, to a lesser extent, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky only recently broke his silence about his situation, revealing that management knows his plans after his contract expires next summer, but declined to make public that information.

Cryptic.

The Panarin situation was much more public, and highlighted by Kekalainen flying to France to visit with Panarin and his agent while the dynamic winger was on vacation. No real progress was made on a contract extension, as Panarin seems likely to either test the waters of free agency or possibly even return to Russia after this season. Some reports indicated he’d prefer to play in a larger market than Columbus, or perhaps at least a market with a beach (he did spend the last month or so of the offseason training with friends Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa), but no solid proof of any of this ever emerged.

The prospects of a future in Columbus that include neither their most potent offensive weapon nor their multi-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender are not fun to consider for the fanbase, but they do appear to be looming. In net, the Jackets do at least boast one of the strongest goaltending prospect pools in the league, but that’s far from a sure thing. Apart from possibly young Vitaly Abramov, they certainly don’t have anyone currently in the pipeline that could replace Panarin’s offensive production.

Getting away from the doom and gloom, let’s circle back to the earlier claim of a very interesting training camp.

The Jackets’ camp roster includes over 60 players, and there are some very tight battles for more than a few roster spots. The race for bottom-six wing minutes is hotly contested. Players with Blue Jackets tenure like Sonny Milano, Markus Hannikainen, and Lukas Sedlak now find themselves being challenged by newcomer Duclair, along with a serious pool of prospects like Sam Vigneault, Kevin Stenlund, Eric Robinson, Jonathan Davidsson, Paul Bittner and even 2018 draft picks Foudy and Traverse City tournament standout Trey Fix-Wolansky.

While I don’t see the 2018 picks making the roster (more time in Juniors would serve their development better than limited fourth-line NHL minutes), the rest are interesting. Duclair obviously adds an element of offense and speed, but has also shown he’s not afraid to play with an edge as well. Vigneault and Stenlund are both every bit of 6-foot-5 and well over 200 pounds, but lack some speed and are both natural centers, a position that should be filled on the roster. Bittner is a superior skater to either of the ‘Twin Towers’, still comes in at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, and is a natural wing, but has struggled to adapt his offensive game to the pro level to this point. Robinson played one game with the Jackets last year coming in as a free agent after captaining the Princeton Tigers in his senior year where he put up 31 points in 36 games. His pro game has yet to really be seen, so training camp and preseason will be important for him. To me, the most interesting name at forward is the Swedish RW Davidsson. An effortless skater, he brings plenty of speed and agility to the lineup, and has shown to be an extremely intelligent playmaker, but he’s definitely not a physical presence nor a defensive stalwart, so not who you’d normally have in a bottom-six role. He could probably use another year in either the SHL or AHL to continue his physical and defensive development, but if he impresses in camp he could at least get a look.

My projected forward lines are:
Panarin – Dubois – Atkinson
Jenner – Wennberg – Bjorkstrand
Milano – Dubinsky – Foligno
Sedlak – Nash – Anderson
Extra forwards Hannikainen and Duclair

On defense, Columbus has the luxury of one of the best top pairs in the league, with Seth Jones alongside blueline sniper Zach Werenski. Werenski set the franchise record for goals as a defenseman last year while playing basically the entire year with a destroyed shoulder. Offseason surgery will keep him slightly limited in camp and likely out of all preseason games, but he’s projected to be 100 percent ready to go for the beginning of the season. After the top pair, though, things are pretty fluid, with approximately seven players vying for the four remaining spots. Three of the four (David Savard, Ryan Murray and Markus Nutivaara) are pretty well locked into the lineup, just more a question of where exactly they’ll sit on the depth chart. But the competition for the No. 6 spot and final roster spot as the seventh man is tight. Dean Kukan and Scott Harrington both saw limited NHL action with the Jackets last year, with Kukan putting up a respectable 4 points in 11 games and Harrington proving to be a reliable No. 6 down the stretch run. Adam Clendening only saw five games with Arizona last year, and has bounced between the leagues a lot in the past few seasons, but his last full season in the AHL saw him put up 59 points in 74 games. He’s not always the most defensively reliable guy, but he’s the best puck mover of the contenders. My personal pick for not only the Jackets roster but also for the No. 6 slot is 6-foot-5 Gabriel Carlsson. While still working to put some bulk on his lanky frame, Carlsson has already adapted well to the North American game, being a steady presence on the Cleveland blueline last year in the AHL. While certainly not an offensive producer, he’s very poised with the puck and is a confident passer. He skates well and uses his lengthy reach to make sure he’s always in good position. He’s also capable of playing either side of the ice.

I have the defense shaping up like this:
Werenski – Jones
Murray – Savard
Carlsson – Nuutivaara
Extra defenseman Harrington

In net, things are unlikely to look any different than last year. While J.F. Berube was brought in to challenge for the backup position after Joonas Korpisalo had a bit of regression last year, he’ll likely head to Cleveland as Korpi’s deal is one-way. Elvis Merzilikins and Daniil Tarasov are both top goaltending prospects, but they’ll continue their development overseas for the time being.

Offseason Grade: C+

Though there seems to be a general sense that more should have been done to improve the team over the summer, the handful of moves made were smart. The big thing here is that there is a lot of potential turmoil brewing heading towards next year. Kekalainen was likely smart not to hedge any knee-jerk bets on this season and instead rely upon his strong organizational depth to improve the team.

If the youngsters make an impact, and you get a rebound season from a vet or two, suddenly even the prospect of losing your two Russian dynamos seems less daunting. Panarin is definitely trade bait for a big return before the deadline if you need to go that route, and if the team gets better from within, that leaves big chunks of cap space to bring in other pieces if necessary.

While they’ll obviously look to improve their fortunes (particularly in the playoffs) this year, it will really be next offseason where the brass will have to earn those shiny new contracts they received this month.

DTFR Podcast #123- 2018-19 Atlantic Division Season Preview

Nick, Colby and Connor talk the Max Pacioretty trade, Eugene Melnyk’s latest antics, John Tortorella’s extension, Adam McQuaid and Steve Yzerman stepping down in Tampa. Also in this episode– DTFR’s official 2018-19 Atlantic Division preview.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes)Stitcher and/or on Spotify.

Yzerman Steps Down as Lightning GM, BriseBois Takes Over

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There’s a new General Manager in town as Julien BriseBois was named to the position of Vice President, General Manager and Alternate Governor of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday afternoon. Steve Yzerman stepped aside to become Senior Advisor to the General Manager in the final year of his contract with the franchise’s front office.

Yzerman cited wanting to spend more time with his family as the 53-year-old former NHLer has been commuting from Detroit to Tampa, The Athletic‘s Pierre LeBrun noted in a tweet.

BriseBois becomes the seventh General Manager in Lightning history, inheriting a team loaded with talent stockpiled over the tenure of Yzerman at the reins.

A native of Greenland Park, Quebec, BriseBois, 41, had served as Tampa’s Assistant General Manager under Yzerman since the 2010-11 season after previously working for the Montreal Canadiens as their Vice President of Hockey Operations. He also had been the General Manager of the Syracuse Crunch– Tampa’s current AHL affiliate– during his role under Yzerman.

Rumors have swirled before that the Detroit Red Wings are looking to shake up their front office during their ongoing rebuild, but the earliest the Red Wings could begin to interview Yzerman– should he be interested– wouldn’t be until his contract runs out with Tampa. Additionally, current Detroit GM Ken Holland, 62, signed a two-year extension last season through the end of 2019-20.

That’s right about the time the prospective expansion team in Seattle would be courting potential candidates for their General Manager position too.

For now, let the speculation run wild if you must, but The Athletic‘s Craig Custance has already laid out all the facts.

Yzerman’s tenure with the Lightning will go down as a memorable one– including a 2015 Stanley Cup Final appearance– despite not winning a Cup.

On a roster that already included Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, Yzerman added players like Ryan Callahan in the Martin St. Louis trade with the New York Rangers, J.T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh in the Vladislav Namestnikov deal with New York and Mikhail Sergachev from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Jonathan Drouin over the years while drafting Nikita Kucherov in 2011 and Andrei Vasilevskiy in 2012.

He also was responsible for signing an undrafted Tyler Johnson in 2011.

Tampa had a 340-222-60 record with Yzerman as their General Manager (2010-18). During that time, the Lightning’s best season record (54-23-5, 113 points) in franchise history was just last season (2017-18).

Down the Frozen River Podcast #114- Mark Speed: The Mark Recchi Episode

Nick, Cap’n and Pete announce their top-10 right wingers of their lifetimes while Connor mails it in and Nick reads his list (somebody has to do work around here). Keeping with tradition, all of Thursday’s big news was announced during or shortly after recording.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Down the Frozen River Podcast #107- Stanley Cup Final Preview (Not Live in Vegas)

Nick and Connor contemplate going to Vegas in addition to a complete breakdown, preview and predictions for the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) and/or on Stitcher.

Oshie, Holtby and Capitals crew force Game 7

Unknown-3Washington Capitals Logo

 

 

 

 

For just the third time this postseason, there will be a Game 7, thanks to the Washington Capitals’ 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on home ice in Game 6 Monday night.

Despite plenty of shorter series’s, the league is still averaging one Game 7 per round (Boston defeated Toronto at home in a Game 7 in the First Round and Winnipeg eliminated Nashville on the road in a Game 7 in the Second Round).

The winner of Wednesday night’s Game 7 not only walks away with the Prince of Wales Trophy, but with an appearance in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Braden Holtby stopped all 24 shots he faced and picked up his fifth career playoff shutout en route to the win for Washington, while Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy made 31 saves on 33 shots against for a .939 save percentage in 58:56 time on ice in the loss.

For the first time in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final the score was tied 0-0 after the first period. Neither team found the back of the net as both goaltenders stood tall, despite a bevy of chances thrown at or towards the net.

Washington came out strong, hitting everything in sight and firing off pucks on net. Tampa responded in kind around the halfway point of the period, but the Capitals readjusted and forced their way into the attacking zone for longer periods of time, it seemed.

Tempers flared as Brooks Orpik and J.T. Miller dropped the gloves in favor of squaring off with fisticuffs at 15:48 of the opening period. Both players were handed five minute majors for fighting and sent to the locker rooms early as only a little over four minutes remained in the first period.

Tom Wilson sent a rocket of a pass to Alex Ovechkin in the low slot, point blank, which Ovechkin redirected on the backhand only to be stoned cold by Vasilevskiy.

With less than a minute remaining in the period, the Capitals desperately searched for a little puck luck on rebound after rebound in the low slot, but Vasilevskiy kept coming up big, culminating in a save in which the Lightning netminder dropped his stick and dove on his left side, making a glove save in the process.

After one period the score remained as the game began, 0-0, with Washington leading in shots on goal (8-6), blocked shots (8-6), hits (16-9), takeaways (8-2), giveaways (6-1) and faceoff win percentage (53-47). Neither team had seen any action on the power play as there were no penalties called in the first period.

Jay Beagle opened the second period guilty of hooking Tampa defender, Anton Stralman, 40 seconds into the second frame. The Lightning went on the power play for the first time of the night.

The Capitals came up huge with their biggest penalty kill of the series up to that point, given the circumstances of a scoreless game in a game in which they were facing elimination.

Andre Burakovsky followed the momentum swing with a fast break-in of his own, surging past Tampa’s trade deadline acquisition, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and firing the puck high above the net.

The Bolts subsequently had a two-on-one of their own going the other way with Miller saucering the puck to Anthony Cirelli, but Holtby made the save.

A little past the halfway point of the second period, Braydon Coburn hooked Devante Smith-Pelly and the Caps went on the power play for the first time since Game 4 in the series at 13:49 of the second period.

Shortly after ringing the post, T.J. Oshie got a second chance at redemption.

Acting as the bumper in the low slot, Oshie (6) received a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and blasted a one-timer past Vasilevskiy sending Capital One Arena into a frenzy of euphoria as the home team went up, 1-0.

Backstrom (11) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (12) had the assists on Oshie’s power play goal at 15:12.

With less than a minute remaining in the second period, Washington had yet another two-on-one opportunity that just wouldn’t go past Tampa’s goaltender. Jakub Vrana followed up with a one-timer of his own as a mirror image of Oshie’s goal with about 30 seconds left, but Vasilevskiy made the initial save.

The puck squibbed free from the Bolts goalie and sat in the crease awaiting further direction until Brayden Point poked it clear to the boards as Oshie dove to either get his stick on the puck or break up Point’s last ditch defensive effort.

Nikita Kucherov swept in on an attacking zone faceoff in the final eight seconds of the second period and fired a shot that beat Holtby, but rang the iron.

Through 40 minutes of play, the Capitals led, 1-0. Washington also had the advantage in just about everything else, including shots on goal (24-14), blocked shots (15-9), hits (29-13), takeaways (11-4), giveaways (7-3) and faceoff win percentage (59-41). Tampa was 0/1 and the Caps were 1/1 on the power play after two periods.

After trading chances to start the third period, the Capitals still held onto a one-goal lead.

Just past the halfway mark, Smith-Pelly (4) put an exclamation mark on the insurance goal as Beagle beat out the icing call, kept the puck down low in the attacking zone for Chandler Stephenson to dish out to Smith-Pelly on a no-look spin pass as Smith-Pelly was flying in the low slot undetected.

Smith-Pelly followed up with a one-timed wrist shot that beat Vasilevskiy and gave Washington a 2-0 lead at 10:02 of the third period. Stephenson (5) and Beagle (4) had the assists.

A minute later, Backstrom tripped up Ondrej Palat and the Lightning went on the power play for the second time of the night at 11:03.

The Capitals penalty killing unit not only kept the puck out of their own net, but they kept it out of their own zone, sending two shots on goal shorthanded while Tampa failed to record a shot on goal while on the power play.

Washington killed off the penalty and kept charging.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos collided with his own teammate just past the twelve-minute mark in the period, sending J.T. Miller to the ice with an elbow to the head. Miller was slow to get up, but skated off under his own power, sat on the bench and leapt back into the action after the next stoppage in play.

Protocol was definitely followed and your eyes were deceiving you.

Vasilevskiy vacated Tampa’s goal crease with about two minutes remaining in regulation as the Lightning tried to score two quick goals with the extra skater.

Bolts Head Coach Jon Cooper used his timeout 30 seconds later prior to a face-off in the attacking zone to the left of Washington’s netminder to go over every scenario with his team.

Despite winning the faceoff, the Lightning could not get a shot past Holtby and the Capitals worked the puck out of their own zone.

Beagle kept the puck onside as Backstrom held onto the puck to assure his team of the victory, making a selfless pass to Oshie to give the Washington goal scorer an easy layup for the empty net goal.

Oshie (7) scored his second goal, pocketing the rubber biscuit in the gapping 4-by-6 net, and gave the Caps a three-goal lead. Backstrom (12) had the only assist on the goal that sealed the deal for a 3-0 win.

At the final horn, the Capitals had tied the series, 3-3, thanks to a 3-0 victory in Game 6. Washington dominated the final stat sheet, leading in shots on goal (34-24), blocked shots (20-13), hits (39-19), giveaways (10-6) and faceoff win percentage (54-46). Tampa finished the night 0/2 on the skater advantage, while Washington completed the night 1/1 on the power play.

Game 7 is Wednesday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Puck drop is set for a little after 8:00 p.m. ET and fans can catch the action on NBCSN, CBC, SN1 or TVAS. The winner will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Vasilevskiy makes ECF a best-of-three series

 

By winning Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals 4-2 at Capital One Arena, the Tampa Bay Lightning have reclaimed home-ice advantage from the Washington Capitals by leveling the series at two victories apiece.

With Washington out-shooting the visiting Lightning 38-20, no Bolt deserves more credit for the victory than First Star of the Game G Andrei Vasilevskiy. After allowing the first goal of the game to D Dmitry Orlov (F T.J. Oshie and D Matt Niskanen) only 4:28 into the contest, Vasilevskiy proceeded to post a 36-for-38 effort (.947 save percentage) despite facing no fewer than nine shots against per frame. In particular, Vasilevskiy stood extremely tall when taking on Washington’s four power plays, as he saved all nine shots faced while his club was shorthanded.

Meanwhile, G Braden Holtby only wishes his play looked anywhere near as good as Vasilevskiy’s. His 16-for-19 performance (.842 save percentage) was borderline disastrous, especially given the incredible help his offense was providing him.

Wait, offense?

Yes, it was not the Capitals’ defense, but their offense that truly kept Holtby’s workload light. Not only did they more than double Tampa’s shots on goal in both the first and second periods (15-7 and 14-6, respectively), but the Caps also held extended possessions in their offensive zone. Pair that with Oshie’s two takeaways and W Devante Smith-Pelly‘s six hits, and you find a team that made life so easy on its goaltender that he just might have grown complacent.

That’s not to say the goals he allowed were soft. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

Take for example Second Star F Brayden Point‘s (F Yanni Gourde and F Tyler Johnson) tic-tac-goal only 1:10 after Orlov’s that tied the game at one-all. Holtby was forced to shade towards his left post when he saw Gourde – who scored 25 goals this season, the fourth-most among all rookies – all by himself inside the near face-off circle, but some deft passing across the slot to Point was all the second line needed to take advantage of a sloppy pass by D Michal Kempny.

Similarly, it’s hard to blame Holtby for his second goal allowed in the first period, registered only 2:54 after Point’s. This time, he was tasked with keeping Tampa’s lethal power play off the scoreboard thanks to C Lars Eller‘s holding penalty against RW Nikita Kucherov 1:05 before.

A power play that had scored at least once in eight previous contests is obviously in a groove, and that groove continued at the 8:32 mark of the game when C Steven Stamkos (Point and F J.T. Miller) set the score at 2-1 with a one-timer from the slot.

For those keeping track at home, the Lightning now sport a 30.8 percent power play conversion rate that is tops among the four teams still competing for the Stanley Cup, trailing only Boston – their opponent in the previous round – for the mark of best power play in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Though the score never changed, the remaining 11:28 of the first period was far from uneventful. However, the previously mentioned shots on goal were not the only activity as even the missed shots drew many a Capitals fan to his or her feet. In particular, W Alex Ovechkin had more than his fair share of salivating shots on net – both in this frame as well as the entire game – but many of those whizzed past the wrong side of the post and harmlessly crashed into the endboards.

Just when it seemed like Vasilevskiy was going to be unbreakable for the remainder of the tilt, Third Star F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Ovechkin and RW Tom Wilson) sprung hope anew in Washington with his wrist shot 5:18 into the second period.

With the exception of Kuznetsov’s path taking him along the left boards instead of between the face-off circles, this goal was eerily reminiscent of the marker that eliminated Pittsburgh from the playoffs for the first time since April 2015. A long pass from Ovechkin sprung his countryman for a breakaway opportunity against the goaltender (who, by happenstance, is also a fellow Russian), who he beat five-hole.

Thanks to some incredible defense played by both clubs (RW Ryan Callahan matched Smith-Pelly’s six hits and D Ryan McDonagh blocked a game-high four shots), that 2-2 tie lasted 26:39 before Tampa third-liner F Alex Killorn (W Ondrej Palat and D Mikhail Sergachev) provided the game-winning goal.

Struck six seconds after Eller was released from the penalty box (his second foul of the night, this time for hooking the eventual goalscorer), Killorn showed some impressive puck-handling skills inside the crease to convert a forehanded shot that would likely be stopped by Holtby’s left leg into a backhand that sneaked between the netminder’s wickets.

With 2:09 remaining in regulation, Head Coach Barry Trotz was forced to pull his goaltender for the second consecutive game. Tampa Bay was unable to convert on the empty net in Game 3, but rookie C Anthony Cirelli bested that effort with 62 seconds remaining to cement the Bolts’ series-evening victory.

Now that they’ve given up the home-ice advantage they worked so desperately to win in Florida, the Capitals must now find a way to win at least one more game at Amalie Arena. A good first step towards doing that – especially for Eller – will be to avoid the penalty box, as the Caps’ 73.7 percent successful penalty kill is the worst remaining in the playoffs.

Saturday is the day for the Eastern Conference Finals’ all-important Game 5. Puck drop is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Eastern (right after the Preakness Stakes) and may be viewed on CBC, NBC and TVAS.

Victor’s Bolts “Heded” in right direction after Game 3 win

 

On a dark and stormy night in the District of Columbia, the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled off the Eastern Conference Finals’ third-straight road victory by beating the Washington Capitals 4-2 at Capital One Arena in Game 3.

Just like Game 2 was all about the Capitals’ offense, the same can be said about Tampa’s in Game 3. In particular, the Bolts’ power play was cruising early, as it provided two of Tampa’s goals en route to a 3-0 advantage.

Taking advantage of G Braden Holtby‘s trip against F Yanni Gourde (RW Alex Chiasson served the penalty) with 7:03 remaining in the first period, C Steven Stamkos (Second Star of the Game D Victor Hedman and F Brayden Point) ripped a Little Einsteins (Americans with the privilege of hearing Pierre McGuire’s analysis should know what I’m talking about) slap shot past Holtby to give Tampa the lead only 56 seconds after Chiasson took his seat.

Considering the score only read 1-0 in the first intermission, Washington seemed like it had kept things under control in the opening 20 minutes. After all, the Capitals fired a game-high 14 shots on goal in the first period – all of which were saved by First Star G Andrei Vasilevskiy.

However, that hypothesis was torn to shreds only 1:50 into the second frame, thanks in large part to C Lars Eller‘s unwise penalty for closing his hand on the puck. After only 16 seconds of five-on-four play later, Third Star RW Nikita Kucherov (Hedman and Stamkos) set the Bolts’ lead at 2-0 with a clapper from the right face-off dot.

An easy snap shot is all Hedman (Kucherov and W Ondrej Palat) needed to find his first goal of the 2018 postseason. With Holtby shading towards Kucherov in the right face-off circle, a quick pass allowed Hedman to capitalize on the gaping net and set the score at 3-0 only 1:47 after the Bolts’ first brace.

Keeping the offense going, Washington finally got on the board with 9:29 remaining in the second period. Taking advantage of Hedman’s failed clear, F Chandler Stephenson dished to W Brett Connolly (Stephenson and D Matt Niskanen) to set him up for a solid one-touch snap shot that beat Vasilevskiy stick side.

However, any positive energy caused by that goal was quickly nullified 5:32 later when Point (F Tyler Johnson and D Braydon Coburn) squeaked a wrist shot past Holtby’s right pad to set the score at 4-1.

With the Caps entering the third period trailing by three goals, logic would lead us to believe they would be firing as many shots on goal as possible to try and shrink that gap. Unfortunately for them, Tampa’s defense was not interested in the slightest in allowing many scoring opportunities.

Due in large part to Tampa Bay’s 18 blocks over the course of the entire game, Washington managed only 13 shots on goal in the final 20 minutes. D Ryan McDonagh played a large role in that effort with his game-high four blocks in the match.

Of course, the Lightning’s solid defense was at its best during five-on-five play. Once Head Coach Barry Trotz upped the ante a bit by pulling Holtby for the extra attacker, the playoff’s best offense finally found its second goal of the game when F Evgeny Kuznetsov (F T.J. Oshie and Eller) scored a wrister with 3:02 remaining in regulation. However, the 4-2 score held until the end of the contest, securing the Bolts’ first Conference Finals victory since May 22, 2016.

The biggest takeaway from this game is that the Tampa Bay team that many pegged to win the Stanley Cup last summer is still well and alive in this tournament. The Lightning’s offense finally found its footing against Holtby and Washington’s defense, and it was paired by a solid defense that stood tall when the Caps’ offense put the pedal to the metal. If Tampa is allowed to dominate Game 4 like it did Game 3, the Capitals will spoil their solid work at Amalie Arena just like Columbus did against them in the First Round.

Speaking of that Game 4, the Bolts’ opportunity to level the Eastern Finals at 2-2 is scheduled for Thursday at 8 p.m. Eastern. The contest will be broadcast on CBC, NBCSN, SN and TVAS.

Caps stun Bolts 6-2 in Game 2

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The Washington Capitals rolled through the Tampa Bay Lightning, 6-2, in Game 2 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final Sunday night at Amalie Arena, earning their 7th road win this postseason (tying a franchise record set in 1998— which is also the last time the Capitals made the Stanley Cup Final).

Braden Holtby made 33 saves on 35 shots against for a .943 save percentage in the win, while Tampa netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 out of 37 shots faced for an .838 SV% in the loss.

It didn’t take long for Game 2 to look a lot like Game 1 with the Capitals grabbing an early lead. So early, in fact, that it was only 28 seconds into the action when Tom Wilson (3) redirected a shot from the point past Vasilevskiy.

Wilson’s goal was all thanks to Matt Niskanen’s stellar job keeping the puck in the attacking zone and haphazard shot towards the net that Wilson deflected. As a result, Niskanen (4) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (10) had the assists on the goal that made it, 1-0, Washington.

The noted agitator of the Capitals, Wilson subsequently took the game’s first penalty (a minor for goaltender interference) at 6:48 of the first period after he bumped into Vasilevskiy.

Tampa converted on the power play with a little puck luck as Niskanen blocked a shot, Brayden Point (5) scooped up the loose puck and capitalized on the man advantage with Holtby out of position.

Steven Stamkos (8) and Victor Hedman (8) had the assists on the goal that tied it, 1-1, at 7:08 of the first period.

About a minute later, T.J. Oshie got a stick up high on Hedman, though replay confirmed the Washington forward only grazed the glove of the Lightning defender and that it was actually the puck that caught Hedman in the face. Nevertheless, Oshie was penalized for high-sticking and Tampa went to work on the ensuing advantage.

As the power play was winding down, Nikita Kucherov worked a pass across the ice to Stamkos (5) for a stereotypical Stamkos power play goal— a one-timed slap shot while falling to one knee. The Bolts grabbed a one-goal lead with Stamkos’s power play goal, 2-1, at 10:22 of the first period.

Kucherov (8) and Point (7) had the assists on the goal.

Minutes later, Brooks Orpik and Chris Kunitz mixed things up a bit after the whistle and received matching roughing minors.

Entering the first intermission, Tampa led, 2-1, on the scoreboard and in shots on goal, 13-10. The Caps had an advantage in blocked shots (5-4) and hits (15-14), while the Bolts led in takeaways (4-3), giveaways (2-1) and faceoff win percentage (64-36). Washington had yet to see any time on the power play and the Lightning were 2/2 on the skater advantage.

In keeping with the theme of early goals in the period, Devante Smith-Pelly (3) sent a one-timer past Vasilevskiy on the heels of a tremendous saucer pass from Alex Chiasson at 2:50 of the second period to tie the game, 2-2.

Chiasson (1) and John Carlson (10) had the assists on Smith-Pelly’s goal.

Jay Beagle and Cedric Paquette took matching roughing minors 6:33 into the second period and play resumed, 4-on-4, for a couple minutes.

Midway through the second frame, the Capitals finally went on the power play for the first time Sunday night as Yanni Gourde was guilty of hooking Lars Eller. Washington did not convert on the power play and took the game’s next penalty— a minor for interference.

After killing Michal Kempny’s interference minor, the Capitals surged in momentum in the closing minutes of the second period.

Eller (5) scored on a point blank redirected pass from Jakub Vrana and Washington pulled back in front, 3-2, leading for just the second time of the night. Vrana (4) had the assist on Eller’s goal at 18:58 of the period.

Almost a minute later, Vasilevskiy was guilty of tripping Andre Burakovsky behind the play and Ondrej Palat was sent to the sin bin to serve the Lightning netminder’s minor.

With ten seconds left on the clock until the second intermission, Washington only needed seven of them to pocket a power play goal and make it a two-goal game.

Kuznetsov (8) threw the puck towards the goal from the goal line to the left of Vasilevskiy as the Lightning goaltender attempted to poke the puck free from the low slot. Instead, Tampa’s goalie actually caught a chunk of the puck off the blocker and the rubber biscuit had eyes of its own, sliding through Vasilevskiy’s five-hole into the twine for the power play goal.

Alex Ovechkin (9) and Eller (5) had the assists and the Caps led, 4-2, at 19:57 of the second period.

Through 40 minutes of play, Washington was ahead, 4-2, on the scoreboard and, 23-21, in shots on goal. Both teams had nine blocked shots aside and three giveaways each. The Capitals also led in hits (27-23), while Tampa led in takeaways (7-3) and faceoff win percentage (63-37) after two periods. Washington was 1/2 on the power play and Tampa was 2/3 on the skater advantage heading into the third period.

The Capitals have outscored the Lightning, 5-0, in second periods alone so far this series.

Washington got out to a quick start in the third period, finishing a two-on-one to go up three-goals when Ovechkin (10) notched his tenth goal of the postseason courtesy of a pass from Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov (11) and Wilson (6) were credited with the assists on the goal that made it, 5-2, Capitals at 3:34 of the third period.

Shortly thereafter, Kempny cross checked Paquette, but the Lightning were not able to convert on the ensuing power play.

Brett Connolly (3) scored in the vulnerable couple of minutes after the Tampa power play, giving Washington a four-goal lead, 6-2 at 12:57 of the third. Eller (6) and Carlson (11) had the assists on Connolly’s goal.

Halfway through the final frame, Alex Killorn and Connolly got into a shoving match, resulting in matching minor penalties for roughing at 13:09.

After being a victim to a questionable, uncalled, trip by Connolly, Kucherov retaliated on his way to the bench in the final minute of regulation and was handed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

At the final horn, the Capitals had sealed the deal on a 6-2 victory on the road, taking a 2-0 series lead back home for Game 3 at Capital One Arena on Tuesday. Washington dominated Game 2, leading in shots on goal (37-35), blocked shots (16-10) and hits (38-33), while the Lightning led in faceoff win percentage (56-44). The Caps finished the night 1/3 on the power play, while Tampa went 2/4.

Washington has outscored the Lightning, 10-4, through the first two games of the series.

Game 3 is scheduled for Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. ET. Viewers in the United States can tune to NBCSN, while fans in Canada can watch the action on CBC, SN or TVAS.