Hockey

vs

Game Times: 7:00 (3/4, 3/5), 1:30 (3/7)
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago (3/4, 3/5), NBC (3/7), TVA-S (3/7), SportsNet (3/7), WGN-AM 720
Bottomless Seas: Raw Charge

After spending the majority of February floating above the detritus of the makeshift Central Division by virtue of MVP and Calder/Vezina caliber performances, the Hawks now begin March on the West Side finally facing again a Tampa Bay Lightning team that has not slowed down since dongwhipping the Hawks in the opening series, or even their playoff run in the bubble last year. “In Like A Lion”, indeed.

Hockey

Whoops.

That ended up being the theme for the Bolts last season. They took a historically good season and a historically good individual season from Nikita Kucherov and dumped in straight into the toilet like tainted Taco Bell in four games. In some ways, it makes them more unique than if they’d just won the Cup. But that will be of little solace to them and their fans. Which makes this season something of a revenge tour. Most likely, they’ll dial back in the regular season a touch, which should be still more than good enough to win this division. And no judgements can be made until the postseason starts. But the thing with the Lightning is they don’t have some record of being playoff chokers. They’ve been to the conference final twice, a Final once all in the last four seasons. Perhaps they should have beaten the Caps in that conference final, with a Game 7 at home, but it was hardly the magnitude of an upset that last year was. They may be running out of chances.

2018-2019

62-16-4  128 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)

3.89 GF/G (1st)  2.80 GA/G (7th)  +72 GD

51.5 CF% (9th)  52.6 xGF% (8th)

29.2 PP% (1st)  85.0 PK% (1st)

Goalies: A microcosm of the entire team, no opinions are going to be formed about Andrei Vasilevskiy in the regular season. We know he’s almost certainly going to put up Vezina-numbers then. He’s been over .920 in both of his seasons as starter, and .925 at evens. Unless something truly broke in the playoffs, the Lightning have no questions here.

But when April rolls around, so do all those questions. Vas-manian Devil here was simply awful in the first round, putting up an .856 over four games against Columbus. No, he didn’t have a lot of help, but when the Lightning needed a save, he didn’t provide one. This followed him somewhat falling apart in that Game 7 the previous season, so we know there are gremlins jumping around his skull in the spring. And that label dogs you until you prove it untrue. Vas is going to have to wait six months to make things right.

He’ll be backed up by Curtis McElhinney, who is about as solid in that role as you can ask. He had a brief hot streak with the Canes last year before ceding to Peter Mrazek, and was solid as a backup in Toronto the previous two seasons to the point where the unwashed rabble amongst Leafs fans (read: all of them) were pining for him last season. The Lightning won’t want to turn things over to him for too long a stretch if something happens to Vasilevskiy, but he certainly can get them out of 20-25 games.

Defense: What might be most amazing about the Lightning’s season last year is that this defense isn’t all that impressive. And it’s still not. Victor Hedman is one of the best around and certainly cures a lot of ills. But Anton Stralman started to age last year, and they replaced him this time around with a couple fliers in Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn. You could see where in heavily sheltered shift, and the Bolts can do that for him, Kirk ShattenKevin could be a find. Mikhail Sergachev had a rough go in the playoffs, but still has all the promise in the world and should get second-pairing time now.

Erik Cernak‘s play landed Slater Koekkoek here, so you can thank him for that. But Braydon Coburn is still here for reasons no one can explain. Ryan McDonagh is past it too, though Hedman covers up for a lot of that. You know Rutta and Schenn suck deep pond scum. When they were put under heavy attack last year by the Jackets, you saw what happened. They’ll need a renaissance from Shattenkirk and real steps forward from Sergachev and Cernak. If they don’t get those, they’ll have to go looking.

Forwards: Then again, it might not matter thanks to this group. They still need to cram in Brayden Point to their cap situation, as he remains unsigned. Until he is, they’ll just have to find a way to make do with Steven Stamkos, Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson (high atop our wanted list for the Hawks), Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. How will they ever manage?

The Bolts lit up the scoreboard on the power play and at evens, and with Stamkos and Kucherov on opposite wings there’s no reason the PP won’t go pinball noises again. There’s just little answer for them, especially with Hedman up top. It’s hard to match this depth, whenever Point gets back into the fold. They could ice just the forwards and Vasilevskiy and probably still be a playoff team. Hell, they should try a 4F-1D lineup at all times just to see what happens.

Predictions: If you got odds on this team to win the Cup, you should take them. I don’t think last season is anything other than a strange anomaly, and the only thing that could derail them again before the conference final is if Vasilevskiy truly does see ghosts in the postseason. Yeah, the defense is not special, but it’s got three puck-movers that it needs and all it really has to do is get the puck up to the forwards and say, “Go do shit.” And this forward group is still otherworldly. Is Kucherov going to go for 128 points again? No, probably not. But he doesn’t have to. This team, barring injury or goalies going inside-out, can sleepwalk to 110 points and the Atlantic title again. Any question about them is in the playoffs, and again, this isn’t a team that has a track record of throwing up on itself when it counts. That feels like a one-off. All systems go here.

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Game Time: 6:30PM CST
TV/Radio: NBCSN, NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
The Business Of Pleasure: Raw Charge

In a manner befitting of their relative age as far as the hockey world is concerned, rather than spend Black Friday in California as they have done in years past, the Hawks have opted to go the snow bird route and kick off the holiday season in Florida, starting tonight in Tampa against the lecherous Jon Cooper and his Lightning.

Everything Else

Geofitz is a contributor at RawCharge.com. Follow him on Twitter @GeoFitz. 

How big is Vasilevskiy’s injury? Could it be something of a blessing in disguise in that he’ll be fresh come April?

Whenever you’re talking about a Vezina caliber goalie going out with an injury, it’s big. But you’re right that it is a bit of a blessing that it’s coming now rather than later in the year. The Lightning went out and got Louis Domingue as a reclamation project during last season and decided to go with him as the back-up over the older Peter Budaj. The coaching staff has been talking that they wanted to limit Vasilevskiy to around 60 starts and now they are basically forced to with this injury. One good thing is that this is a fairly easy stretch of schedule with more non-playoff teams than playoff teams on the schedule between now and when Vasilevskiy is expected to return.

Brayden Point busted out last year with 66 points, but is topping it this year. Is it just the 28% shooting percentage? Something else? And what about his contract situation in the summer?

It’s hard to see his goal totals continuing to go as they have early this year because of that unsustainable shooting percentage. But with the way he plays, it’s certainly not out of the question for him to reach 80 points and be in the Selke conversation. Patrice Bergeron obviously has that award on lock down, but in Point you’re potentially looking at the next Bergeron. As for his contract, that’s hard to say. There’s a lot of moving pieces coming up over the next two summers. Besides Point, Sergachev and Vasilevskiy will also be up for some big new contracts too. The Lightning could try to bridge him with a deal similar to what they did with Kucherov, but if he does have an 80-point season, that may be difficult. I’m confident they will get something done. Point is a team player and I don’t think this will be a Nylander situation.

Same question as Point, but about Yanni Gourde.

Yanni Gourde is quite the success story. Undrafted and unwanted. Earned an ELC with Tampa when San Jose declined to offer him one. And now he has long-term financial security. I know it’s a cliche to say this, but it’s true with Gourde; he has a motor that never stops. He is always on the go. He’s also a lot like Brendan Gallagher in that he is not afraid of going to the rough areas despite his smaller stature. That bulldog mentality has served him well and will continue to. Even if his production dips from what it was last year and what he is putting up so far this year, his contract isn’t likely to be an albatross and represents a discount on his current production level.

Deep down, they know they can’t play Dan Girardi with Hedman forever, right?

When the Lightning signed Girardi, I was pessimistic on one hand, but optimistic on the other hand. The big question was could he show himself to be more effective in a lesser role where he doesn’t have to be a #2 defenseman. His advanced stats still don’t look great, but the staff is at least keeping his minutes down. He is last in EV TOI and 5th in overall TOI among the Lightning’s defense. Hedman gets some breaks from carrying Girardi around by taking the occasional shift with Sergachev or Anton Stralman. Hedman plays two minutes more EV TOI per game than Girardi does.

Bonus Answer (No, seriously, he just gave us this. Imagine enjoying your team that much)

A couple of young rookies to keep your eye on are Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph. Cirelli got an extended cup of coffee at the end of last year and played in every playoff game for the Lightning as a rookie professional. Joseph made the team out of camp this year. Together, they’ve formed a strong third line with veteran Alex Killorn. They have some of the best advanced statistics on of any line on the team. They don’t get as much ice time as the big boys for obvious reasons, but they are always on the puck and creating chances. The trio would have more points and goals in their pockets if they had been able to find some luck earlier in the year when it seemed like they couldn’t catch a break with posts and missed shots. Cirelli is everything you could ask for in a third-line two-way center that plays a 200-foot game. Joseph is a blazer with his speed. Over and over this year, we’ve watched him get icings waved off because defensemen loafed it to the puck while he blew the doors off of them to get to the puck.

 

Game #23 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

George is a contributor to RawCharge.com. You can follow him on Twitter @GeoFitz4. 

Best record in the league, four guys averaging more than a point per game, with Stamkos nearly at two points per game. Is there anything to complain about in Bolts-land?
– Only real complaint has been the usage of Slater Koekkoek. Jon Cooper has used seven defensemen for all but a handful of games this season. This was actually something I predicted would happen earlier in the off-season. With three young defensemen, it allows Associate Head Coach Rick Bowness to  balance the ice time of the younger kids and protect them. So far, Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr have rotated in-and-out of the 7th defenseman spot. It’s been a little bit frustrating because we feel that Koekkoek has played well in the time he’s been given, while Sustr has regressed and his flaws have been more exposed than ever. Koekkoek is a smooth skater and was once looked on as a potential #3 defenseman. He had three shoulder surgeries (two on one, one on the other) before even starting his professional career and that stunted his development a bit. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor complaint.
Brayden Point is already halfway to his rookie point total from last year. What do we need to know about him?
– Recently I’ve seen some comparisons of Point to Blackhawks Captain Jonathan Toews. Not saying that he’s up to Toews level… yet… but he’s the kind of player that does the little things right. He’s not a master at any one thing, but he’s just a very solid all-around player that plays great defense and produces offensively. His line, with Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde on either wing, have been tasked with taking on top lines. Expect his line to be out there a lot against Toews and Saad. Point was overlooked in his draft year despite his offensive output (36-55-91 in 72GP in WHL with Moose Jaw) because of his size and some minor questions on his skating according to reports at the time. Since then, he’s picked up a couple inches and probably 15-20 pounds. That extra size and the work he has put in with renowned skating coach Barb Underhill allowed him to really bring his game to the next level. He was the first AHL-eligible professional rookie to make the Lightning out of training camp under Steve Yzerman. That’s just not something that happens with this organization anymore.
Mikhail Sergachev has 14 points and was the offseason’s big acquisition. Is he already the second puck-moving d-man the Lightning have needed behind Hedman. 
– Most definitely. The Lightning had a bit of a luxury in having three elite forwards on the roster. But they really only had one elite defenseman, as good as Anton Stralman is. Sergachev is proving to be that second player and he has more goals and points than Jonathan Drouin this season. Habs fans though will rightfully point out that Sergachev has a much better supporting cast in Tampa than he would of had in Montreal and he likely wouldn’t be producing like this north of the border. He’s a smart, charismatic kid that has a great work ethic and it comes through in the Russian interviews RawCharge has translated. He’s mostly been paired with Anton Stralman who has proven to be a great compliment to him. Stralman had career offensive seasons when he joined the Lightning but cooled off last season away from Hedman. But what he did with Hedman is the same thing he can do for Sergachev – give him a solid defensive presence that is an excellent communicator and will let him do his thing. He’s also earned his way on to the second power-play unit and has shown a knack for getting pucks on net through bodies.
How is Dan Girardi rocking positive underlying numbers when he was an utter disaster in New York?
– So, funny thing about that. @LoserPoints, our resident advanced stats experts, was just chatting with the rest of the staff about Girardi’s numbers a few days ago. With the Lightning using seven defensemen, it means that everyone is getting a chance to play with everyone else. When Girardi has been with Sergachev, he’s posted some ridiculously good numbers. With every one else, his numbers are mostly in the negative. A lot like his normal partner Braydon Coburn, he doesn’t push the pace offensively, but he has been better at limiting defensive chances for the Lightning. He’s been able to compliment Sergachev in the limited time they’ve played together and Sergachev’s offensive instincts has helped to buoy Girardi’s numbers. Girardi also mentioned in interviews before the season that last year he was slowed down by a nagging foot injury. That’s healed (though it’s only a matter of time before he’s hurt blocking a shot) and that has shown through in his positioning.
If this team doesn’t come out of the East, it will be because….?
– Injuries, particularly to Andrei Vasilevskiy or Victor Hedman. Vasilevskiy in particular is one of the big keys to this team going deep. While the offense is bound to cool off sooner or later, they do have tremendous scoring depth in the top eight forwards. There are some replacement options up front in the AHL in the form of veteran Cory Conacher and prospects Adam Erne, and Matthew Peca. The blue line is a little bit shakier, but the team could weather an injury there, maybe two. Having kept Koekkoek and Sustr, the Lightning are carrying eight NHL defensemen. In the AHL though, the depth just isn’t there. Jamie McBain is the lone defenseman with any NHL experience, though his experience is ample with over 300 games in the NHL. Beyond that, there’s one AHL veteran that could fill-in, one that is already on the bottom of the AHL line-up, a third-year pro, and then two each in their first and second years in the AHL. The goaltending depth picture did get a little bit better with a trade for Louis Domingue to replace Michael Leighton who had been struggling in the AHL. However, a pairing of Domingue and Peter Budaj doesn’t give fans the most confidence unless Domingue can return closer to what he’s shown in the past with the Coyotes.