Hockey

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Game Time: 7:00 PM
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago+, WGN-AM 720
Touchdown Tom: Raw Charge

It seems fitting that the Hawks and Bolts will close out their season series exactly where it was projected that both teams would, with Tampa able to clinch their playoff berth with a victory of any kind tonight, and the Hawks all but mathematically eliminated, could very well be a mere 2 points away from doing so by night’s end depending on the results of the Stars and Preds’ games, who are both in action against the Canes and Cats respectively.

Hockey

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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

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Game Times: 7:00PM (1/13) & 6:00PM (1/15)
TV/Radio: NBCSN (1/15), NBC Sports Chicago (1/15), WGN-AM 720
Tonight We’re Gonna Give It 35%: Raw Charge

Despite every indication that this shouldn’t be happening from both the world at large given that pestilence still ravaging this country, and the fact that the league itself has said that they’d probably be better off simply NOT playing, the NHL regular season (such as it is) begins tonight. And the Tampa Bay Lightning will raise their championship banner in front of no one while an already decimated Hawks team looks on at a vague reminder of what once was and now seems so desperately far away.

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RECORDS: Lightning 9-7-2   Hawks 9-8-4

PUCK DROP: 7:30

TV: NBCSN Chicago

THE GUYS WHO DON’T LOOK LIKE XQUISITE: Raw Charge

It may sound strange to say the Hawks have more points than the Lightning, but that’s the case as the two ’15 Finalists get together again on West Madison. But of course, as we know here, that doesn’t mean the Hawks are better off than the Bolts. The Hawks collected their 22 points in the Cirque de Stupid that is the Central Division and Western Conference as a whole, whereas the Lightning are trying to fight through the gauntlet of the Atlantic. And one of these teams did put up 128 points last year, while the other missed the lowest bar for the playoffs in years by a good distance. And not that much has changed.

That’s not to say everything is rosy in Tampa. They’re sitting just three points above the Eastern cellar, though only two points out of the last playoff spot. While watching the Lightning, or trying to measure them by various metrics, it’s kind of clear that there’s still a malaise from last spring hanging over and in this team. Nothing they do in the regular season is going to matter to anyone, but sadly with the division they’re in they can’t play the whole regular season like it doesn’t matter. Which is kind of what they’ve been doing. Other than their power play, which has reached that “self aware” level, everything else is just meh. Right in the middle of the league.

The Lightning still score, as their overall goals-per-game and even-strength goals per game are in the top five. With the king of marksmen like Kucherov and Stamkos and Point and others, they don’t need to dominate possession to get the scoring they need. Which is good, because they aren’t. Their possession and expected goals numbers re firmly middle of the pack. Again, they can get away with that given the talent for long stretches, but it’s not ideal long-term.

Especially as they may not get the PDO balance at the other end right now. When picking through the rubble of last season’s meltdown in the first round, it was hard not to start with Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s .856 SV%. Anyone can have a bad four games of course, but any big save from Vas in at least Games 1 or 2 could have pivoted that series. The Bolts never got one. That hangover seems to have carried over to this season, where he’s carrying a .906. The Hawks will get the backup tonight, as Curtis McElhinney will take the start.

And that’s probably the biggest factor for the Bolts to get back on track, because they don’t give up a ton of great chances. They’re not among the league’s best, but comfortably in the top half. If Vas can get back to .915 or better, everything should be fine in Tampa.

It also might not hurt the Lightning that they’ve only played seven home games so far, and after this one tonight 14 of their next 17 will be in Tampa. You wouldn’t be shocked by a charge up the standings before New Year’s.

To the Hawks, who could or could not be with Andrew Shaw tonight. He didn’t practice yesterday so they’re going to see how he shows up tonight. If he doesn’t go, the Hawks will dress all seven d-men as they don’t have an extra forward at the moment with Drake Caggiula in a dark room somewhere (my whole life is a dark room…). Every time in the past the Hawks have tried the 7-D look it has gone horribly, and everyone bitches to high heaven about it after. I still think it should be something they try more often and with Boqvist involved, if only to shelter him and Seabrook better. It also provides extra shifts here and there for Kane, Toews, Saad, Dach, DeBrincat, which is a good thing. But what do I know? I’m just a drunk in the rain. Corey Crawford will be your starter.

The Hawks got embarrassed twice by the Lightning last year, though no scoreline truly reflects it. This was the opponent that put up 30 shots in a period on them at the United Center last time around. Quite simply, the Hawks aren’t built to deal with this kind of skill and speed. And really, neither of those things have changed.

The difference, albeit small, between what the Hawks saw on Tuesday and what they’ll get tonight is the Lightning defense isn’t as consistently mobile as Carolina’s. Sure, Hedman and Kirk ShattenKevin are, and Sergachev and Cernak are too. But Sergachev can get wayward when under pressure, and whether it’s Schenn or Rutta joining him that can be exploited. So can Ryan McDonagh on the second pairing. Whereas the Hawks couldn’t get behind Carolina’s last line, they can on this one.

Which means some other d-men besides Connor Murphy have to get the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible to get the defense to back up, which in turn will give everyone more room to breathe. As we saw last year, when the Hawks try their 17-pass breakout, the Lightning’s plus-plus speed at forward and on the forecheck swallows them whole and spits them back out inside out. There just isn’t time for that, at least not until you back them up by proving you can and will stretch the ice.

It’s a rough part of the schedule, as the Hawks again get one of the better teams in the league, whatever the standings say, before two with the hottest team in the league and then two with maybe the best team in the division. But if you want to go somewhere, you can’t always take the path of least resistance.

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.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Washington

Boston

Buffalo

Detroit

Florida

Montreal

Ottawa

 

Everything Else

“How did it come to this?” Jon Cooper asked, as he removed his chaps and put on a robe, a little alarmed at the amount of scented massage oils on his hands and elsewhere. He looked out the window of his yacht, and no it wasn’t him wondering how he ended up with this curious yet staid housewife of Tampa, who not only wouldn’t leash him but didn’t even know what it was, but why he wasn’t working at the moment.

And that’s how most of Tampa will spend the next month or two, because God knows there’s nothing else to do there. How did the best team of the recent era go poof! before we even had time to get drunk? Move over, Leftovers, HBO is going to have a new show about a mysterious happening that no one can explain. Except the fallout will still be everyone living in Tampa or St. Pete, wondering how they got there and yet never figuring out a way to leave. Vibrant, this show will not be.

Let’s dispel the myths that will hound the Lightning through all of next year. That somehow dominating the league left them unprepared for games that meant anything. Hmmm…seems to me when you’re chasing a points and wins record, every game means something. You’re not just going through the motions. And seeing as how the last two relevant Hawks teams and the two Penguin champions basically took March off, this doesn’t hold much water (or in Cooper’s case, water-based lube). You’re professionals, almost everyone on that team was in last year’s conference final and a few before that, so to act as if they were unprepared for the playoffs is a stretch at best, an absolute falsehood at worst. It’s a foothold for the stupid.

They aren’t tough enough, that’s what every breathing-too-hard-after-three-stairs media person in Canada and in hockey will say. They lack grit. They lack heart. And Columbus doesn’t because Brandon Dubinsky yells a lot or something. Again, this is a Lightning team that’s been within no more than five wins of a Cup three times in the last five years. It must know something about advancing in the spring. Perhaps it forgot, as most residents of the area tend to with a lot of things. Or wish they could. Perhaps it’s contagious.

No, eventually, between planning his next swingers’ club outings to Tampa’s one cocktail lounge, Cooper will come to realize he just got out-coached, and his goalie barfed up a poltergeist or two. The Bolts still wanted to weave their pretty passing patterns through an amped-up and moved-up trap of Columbus. They wanted to Quenneville, when Quenneville hockey was shown to not work anymore three years ago. And it was especially silly with a battered and then absent Victor Hedman, and Mikhail Sergachev’s legs more and more covered by his own urine. Out and up was the order of the day, which is also what they tell you to be aware of when walking into Cooper’s office.

Even that doesn’t explain it all, not as much as Vasilevskiy’s .855 SV% for the series does. Whatever plan you have or the opponent has doesn’t matter much when your goalie looks like Gumby in the freezer. Pair that with Game 7 last year against the Caps, and suddenly there’s a lot of baggage in the young man’s head. Baggage he can’t do much about until next spring. Makes for a fun follow-up season, with no questions at every stop or anything.

In the end, it might be nothing more than the perfect storm of a bad week, a goalie slump, an injury or two, and every opponent getting hot. The thing with hockey is that it defies explanation a lot of the time, and trying to stab the smoke of reason it has is what lands organizations in bigger trouble than it already was.

The questions now of course will be do the Lightning panic and change things in search of the more and more nebulous “grit and heart and fire and passion and FAARRRRRTTTT?” Are players who are considered to have snuffed it on the big stage this past week all contenders to be moved along? Could there be something wrong with a group that put up the best regular season in recent memory? That’s a pretty tidy list, consisting only of Stamkos, Kucherov, Palat, Vasilevskiy, Sergachev, Point, Johnson, and Hedman. Should be easy to move all of them along, no?

Luckily the GM who was hailed a genius for trying to reconstruct the 2014 Rangers blue line isn’t around anymore, so he can’t be hurled overboard. Then again, it was his replacement who actively sought Jan Rutta, so there must be some kind of gas leak in the GM office at Amalie Arena that causes one to see a blue line as a place for surrealism. Seriously, Braydon Coburn, Rutta, and Ryan Callahan played playoff games in 2019. When you have to absolutely play at high speed, the first or second call probably shouldn’t go out to Dan Girardi or Ryan McDonagh. Maybe it’s not all that mysterious?

You know how this goes. Tampa could easily hold everything together, win next year at a canter, and then this flop will be cited as their rallying cry and inspiration among the champagne and confetti. It can be the chip on the shoulder everyone seems convinced you have to have to succeed in April and May. Hockey is nothing if not filled with people angry at figments, or their struggle to cope in the every day world.

But that will be just another Cup win. What the Lighting have done here is truly unique. Never happened before, in fact. A Cup win next spring just adds you to the list. Here you stand alone. It’s all yours. Everyone will remember this one. Which is just about the only thing memorable to happen to Tampa, ever. They say the Bucs won a Super Bowl once, after they got to play a team too stupid to change its signals to avoid detection from their old coach who just happened to be on the other sideline. All that got us were Hooters ads and some of the most awkward exchanges on Sportscenter ever seen with confused and impatient college kids. And that’s saying something. Still, I don’t believe it actually happened. I know it didn’t matter if it did.

No, this should go on all the signs. Next to Magic Mike and the reasons for not going to Rays games which consist only of, “Well, it’s over there.” (which would have made Tampa the perfect landing spot for the White Sox, come to think of it)

“Welcome to Tampa, the site of the only Presidents’ Trophy Winner to belch themselves inside-out in less than a week.” Now that’s something. They’ll come from miles to see that…or to avoid whichever machete-wielding neighbor escaped his basement dungeon that day in some podunk Florida town. Either or.

Goodnight, Tampa Bay Lightning. You are history. No, literally, you are. An accomplishment, a touchstone, a benchmark. No one else can say that this spring. Just make you take extra care to knock on Cooper’s door this summer. He’s got a lot to work out.

 

 

Everything Else

It’s rather fascinating to look at the state of these two teams now three years and some change after they matched up in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning were an ascending team at that time and a lot of people seemed to think they might end up being the next kind of team to have an Era like the Blackhawks had. It hasn’t happened for the Lightning in the postseason obviously, but they’ve remained one of the better teams in the NHL since then while the Hawks now find themselves closer to the cellar than the ceiling.

With the amount of young talent the Lightning have, it’s not exactly surprising they’re second in the league in points right now. They’ve built their team extremely well around their core stars in Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman while also supplementing the whole deal with really talented depth – hey, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? They made what now looks like one of the smartest trades in recent memory to get Mikhael Sergachev from the Habs, and then got aggressive in adding good veterans along the way as well. They’ve made the absolute most of their situation as they look to win a Cup in what looks like a really wide open window for them.

But perhaps their greatest and no doubt the most surprising find has been Yanni Gourde, who I promise you is not some random pumpkin-themed comic book villain. If you’re reading this and thinking “who the hell is Yanni Gourde?” you are probably not alone. As a 25-year old rookie, Gourde came out of absolutely nowhere last year to post 64 points (25G, 39A) in 82 games last year and solidified himself as one of the Bolts’ key depth contributors. This year he’s gotten off to an even better start to the season with 21 points (9G, 12A) in 22 games, and he just signed a huge, six-year extension in Tampa with an AAV of $5.167MM. It’s not often you see that kind of rise from guys with just 22 games of NHL experience before they hit 25-years-old.

The thing that feels so weird about Gourde is that all of his success just seems so unsustainable, and yet he’s sustained it. He shot 18.4% last year and is shooting 19.6% this year. On his entire career he’s at 18.9% shooting. That’s basically a goal for every five shots he takes, which just doesn’t make any damn sense. Mike Bossy is one the best goal scorers in NHL history, and he shot 21.2% for his career. Gourde’s own teammate Stamkos is one of the best modern goal scorers, and he’s shot just 16.4% on his career. Alex Fucking Ovechkin is probably gonna end up as the best goal scorer ever, and he’s shot just 12.5% on his career (though he does shoot more than most). Gourde’s conversion rate isn’t just high – it’s almost unprecedented in the modern age.

Obviously that doesn’t discredit Gourde in any way, because at this point it’s easy to think it’s just more dumb luck. This might be who he is as a scorer. Maybe he just has a shot that fools goalies better than most players, or maybe he just picks his spots really well. He’s been a brilliant addition for the Lightning, obviously, and he’s exactly the kind of sneaky good addition that high level teams tend to fall ass-backwards into. It’s not like the Blackhawks didn’t have similar lucky finds – Patrick Sharp didn’t score 20 goals until he was 25, and from that point forward he was a virtual lock to reach that benchmark. But even in Sharp’s case he never shot higher than 17.2% in a season.

Gourde is a fun player to watch, and like I said before he is a fun story. I am happy for him, and I definitely don’t want him to stop being fun and good at hockey. I am not sure that he will keep being able to score at that kind of rate, but even if he does eventually falling off a cliff in terms of shooting percentage, he’s still going to be a productive player. But at this point, he seems to be a Cinderella Story with a clock that won’t strike midnight.

Game #23 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

 vs 

Game Time: 6:00PM CDT
TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
Spanish Moss: Raw Charge

Tonight the Hawks will cap off the traditional 3-in-4 stretch weekend stretch by welcoming the eastern conference powerhouse that all of the galaxy brained hockey minds seemingly always forget about, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who themselves are also bringing a weekend Midwest swing to a close.

Everything Else

Whenever the Hawks and Bolts get together, we bother our friend Alexis Boucher (@Alexis_b82). When we stop talking about Tetsuya Naito, we get around to hockey. 

 

The Maple Leafs got all the press over the summer (shocking we know), and the Bruins always seem to have the East coast bias thing going. But the Lightning are the defending division champs, both regular season and playoffs, and were an unlucky whisker away from being in the Final themselves. Is there any reason to think they aren’t the favorites again?
I’m understandably biased when it comes to this question, but barring extensive injuries or incredibly bad luck it’s hard not to pick the Bolts as one of the heavy favorites out of the East. Their incredibly talented core group is still around and younger players have another year of experience under their belts. They know how well they’ve done over the last several years but the fact that they’ve fallen short isn’t lost on them. Before the home opener earlier this month Steven Stamkos was asked about the 2017-18 Division championship banner that had been hung in the rafters and if there was any discussion about it among the team. The captain said there wasn’t any talk about it because it wasn’t the one they wanted. This group remains hungry to finally fulfill their promise and hopefully this will be the year they make it happen.
It seems like the Lightning are always unveiling a spiky new youngster who contributes big time. Last year it was Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point. Anyone this year?
Right winger Mathieu Joseph made the Lightning’s roster out of training camp and he’s already been making a name for himself. Drafted in 2015, Joseph had an incredibly strong first pro season with the Syracuse Crunch in 2017-18. He plays with a tremendous amount of speed and tenacity on the ice which fits in well with Tampa’s style. He has had incredibly chemistry early on a line with another promising young player Anthony Cirelli and the veteran Alex Killorn.
Any chance Mikhail Sergachev earns more of a role than just third-pairing this season?
The sky certainly seems to be the limit when it comes to Sergachev’s potential. He’s so good that it’s easy to forget he’s only 20-years-old. He continues to see a decent amount of time on the second power play unit as well. As he continues to learn and grow it’s not out of the question that he breaks into Tampa’s top four.
What’s the story behind Steve Yzerman stepping down? Is he just going to get that much money from the Red Wings? Is this a worry in Tampa?
When the Yzerman news broke so close to the start of training camp it was more surprising than anything. Apparently, he wanted to tell all of the players when they arrived but it was shocking nonetheless. Not a lot of details have come out besides Yzerman’s desire to be closer to his family. His wife and daughters have remained based in Michigan throughout his tenure as GM and that can’t be easy. It would seem he’s destined to rejoin the Red Wings in some capacity down the line but it’s also difficult to see him stepping away from the team that he has built into a perennial contender before they reach their goal of winning the Stanley Cup. There’s a lot of unknowns in this scenario but Yzerman has definitely left them in a position to succeed. Julien BriseBois has been under his tutelage for a quite some time and is more than a worthy successor.

 

Game #8 Preview Suite

Preview

Spotlight

Q&A

Douchebag Du Jour

I Make A Lot Of Graphs

Lineups & How Teams Were Built

Everything Else

While all the news of the summer has mostly been focused north of the 49th, because they have nothing else to do in the summer except annoy the rest of us with their offseason bullshit and I mean jesus fucking christ get a second baseball team or something or spend more than three weeks at fucking “cottage” where all you do is drink the same bad beer you always do and complain about what you spend the rest of the year doing before you go back to complaining about it while you do it and yes we actually have mountains and lakes here in the States too can you believe it and you’re not so special so just go back to locking yourself in your basement and drinking your own piss while you make videos that 16-year-old girls love because that’s not creepy at all you fucking dweeb and..

I’m sorry, that got away from me. Let’s start again. Most of the attention this summer has been on the Leafs after signing Tavares, or the continuing descent into hell’s asshole from the Ottawa Senators and their drama(s) with Erik Karlsson, or the simply mystifying, long-standing incompetence and arrogance of the Canadiens. So you’d be forgiven if you forgot how the Atlantic Division actually works.

The class is still located on the west coast of Florida, which isn’t where anything should ever be located but here we are. The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t gone anywhere, though they may have taken a half-step back by not taking a step forward. Then again, that step forward is probably waiting either in camp or in mid-season, and it could be a very large one. Let’s hop to it.

Goalies: As you’ll see with most of the team, it’s basically the same outfit as last year that they’re just going to run again. Andrei Vasilevskiy put up a Vezina-caliber season, at least to the eye of the ever-vigilant hockey press and their Nick Kyrgios-level of effort on thinking, finishing third for that award after piling up a .920 SV% and a 2.62 GAA. He was also .930 at evens. Those numbers would look better if he hadn’t tailed off in the season’s second half, as he went .916-.916-.883-.900 in January-April, which is worrying. And it wasn’t a much larger workload that got him, because he made 50 appearances in the season before while Ben Bishop was fighting with the various gremlins that live in his soft tissue (I think I saw Soft Tissue Gremlins open for…).

So maybe that should have been a clue that the playoffs were not going to be filled with glitter and strobe lights for him. The first two rounds saw him get the soft-landing of the one-man Devils and the one-line Bruins, and he obliged accordingly by seeing the Lightning through in 10 games total. But the series against the Caps, who were running on high-octane at that point, was a different story. He posted a .901 in that series, with serious disasters in Games 1, 2, and 7. Sure, his first foray into the playoffs as a starter, and he is allowed another try or five. But given the way he faded as the season went along, there should be sharper eyes on him at the start of this season as teams already have the scouting reports from last season’s back end.

Backing him up is Louis Domingue. He’s perfectly serviceable as a backup, but the Bolts are not going to be able to turn to him if Vasilevskiy’s belly-up from last year is a feature and not a bug. If that happens, they’ll be looking outside the organization.

Defense: So the temptation is to label this their weakness. And it is right now. Except that it very well might not look like what it looks like now. Because the rumor is that Erik Karlsson will really only go to Tampa or Vegas via trade. And if this defense adds the best d-man alive, it goes from weakness to sharp pointy thing with lasers.

But until that happens, if it happens, we can only deal with what we have on hand. Outside of Vasilevskiy, the biggest reason the Lightning got punted by the Caps in seven games is that Victor Hedman was awful in that series. And when he’s not dominating play, they Lightning don’t have anyone else who can do that. It was also what bit them in 2015, and that’s when Anton Stralman could actually move. Hedman carried a 45% corsi-percentage that series, and his scoring-chance percentage was even worse.

Now, some of that, even a majority, could be explained that he was dragging around the bloated, buzzard-ransacked, maggot-infested corpse of Dan Girardi around. I don’t know what it’s going to take for people in the game to realize that Girardi has been a nuclear disaster site for about five seasons now, and no amount of dumb faces he makes or grunts he emits are going to change that. He should be nowhere near anyone’s top four, let alone a Cup-contenders. Even Hedman couldn’t save his immobile, dead ass and that should tell you something, And yet…

Ryan McDonagh and Stralman are still here to man the second-pairing, and while the odometer readings are catching up to McDonagh, a second-pairing assignment is still well within his range. If in between buying new silk robes and testing the viscosity of his own spunk, Jon Cooper could figure out to slide Mikhail Sergachev here instead of Stralman, he’d be doing his team a huge favor. At least until Karlsson washes up on the useless St. Petersberg shores.

The third pairing is the aforementioned Sergachev, who will be praying he no longer has to serve out whatever apprenticeship/dungeon-hood Cooper has in his own mind (Note: Cooper has an actual dungeon in his house but it is for very different things) and can be let loose. The broken-and-pie faced Braydon Coburn is somehow still here, even though it’s been unclear what he does other than break his face since 2012. Slater Koekkoek and the dumbfuck way he either spells or pronounces his last name and Jake Dotchin probably fancy their chances of cracking the lineup regularly, especially when Stralman can’t get out of a chair and Girardi and Coburn can’t figure out how to sit in one.

Forwards: The opposite end of the spectrum for the Bolts. They have two perennial MVP-candidates on their top line in Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. They’re perhaps the only team that can claim that, except for maybe Winnipeg. Brayden PointOndrej PalatTyler Johnson could be the best second line in the league, though the other contender might in the same division with Toronto. The bottom six is littered with solid contributors in Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, Cory Conacher, Cedric Pacquette, and now Andy Andreoff who washed out of LA can play with a team more suited to, y’know, something other than belching and farting their way up and down the ice. 1-12 it’s hard to find a more complete unit in the Eastern Conference. They don’t have the center-depth the Leafs now employ, but this center-depth was enough to pile up 113 points with spotty goaltending for half the season. And we know that Steve Yzerman is going to add something sneaky and productive at the deadline for a song, and not even a good song. Like a Styx or Springsteen song or something (suck it, Killion).

Outlook: They’ll be challenged by the Leafs for the division crown, which means they’d have to negotiate likely the Bruins and then the Leafs to get back where they were (maybe the Panthers). There is more than enough scoring here if everyone stays healthy and just gets to their career norms. A couple guys getting snake-bitten could be a problem, but could be countered by guys having spikes. The defense is a worry, until it gets buffeted by that Swedish dude with the hair. No, the one they don’t already have. The goaltending is a bigger question than anyone is asking though, but thankfully no one else in this division has a definitive answer there either. The conference final certainly is a distinct possibility, and once you’re there pretty much anything can happen. At the same time, Vasilevskiy could be what he showed for the second half and then whatever resources they were going to chuck for Karlsson might have to be used to go get a goalie. Why do I feel like Henrik Lundqvist could end up here?

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