Weekend Takeaways: Lightning rediscover contending form after slow start

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) scores on a shot in front of Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) during overtime in an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

It’s understood that the regular season holds different weight for different clubs. No matter how certain squads may scuffle at times, we know, ultimately, they will get into the post-season and be judged on what they do there.

As much as any other team in the league, that’s been the Tampa Bay Lightning’s story for some time. Initially, no matter what they did in the 82-game dress rehearsal, it didn’t matter because they couldn’t get it done in the spring. Then when they summitted that mountain, the Bolts became a team that, even if they were second or third in their division, you knew you wanted no part of them come playoff time.

As such, no person inside or outside the organization was looking for the panic button when Tampa was 7-6-1 a month into the season and had given up more goals than it had scored. Still, even if the turnaround that’s occurred since then was inevitable, the team that’s won 15 of 16 playoff series the past three post-seasons has to be feeling a lot better than it was a short time ago.

The Bolts squeaked out a 4-3 extra-time victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, running their record to 8-2-0 in their past 10. Their only two L’s in that stretch were to the best team in the NHL this year, the Boston Bruins. Has Tampa been perfect? No chance. They’re still giving up 2.90 goals-per-game in that run, which basically ranks in the middle of the NHL stack.

But the Lightning are burying 4.10 goals-per-game during that time and their expected-goals percentage since mid-November (56.63) is second only to the aforementioned Bruins. Salary cap casualties — you can’t always find an IR way around it — mean Tampa annually says goodbye to important players like Ondrej Palat, Blake Coleman and Ryan McDonagh. This year, though, Mikhail Sergachev has taken a major offensive leap on the back end, while Nick Paul — he of the 11 goals this season — may just be the latest guy to find another gear after being developed or acquired by this team.

A prime example of that is 2015 third-rounder Anthony Cirelli, who made his season debut versus Toronto after recovering from shoulder surgery. The future Selke winner — yeah, you can put that one on the board — should have something to say about Tampa’s middling goals-against coming down.

There’s also been a little warm-and-fuzzy stuff recently, with captain Steven Stamkos collecting his 1,000th point last week as a pre-curser to him netting his 500th goal six ‘Stammer Time’ blasts from now.

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Let’s face it, making a fourth straight final is a herculean task that even this model franchise might not be able to pull off. But as the past few weeks have shown, their best look is a really good one — and you know that’s the side Tampa will show when the chips are down.

Other Takeaways

• Another team getting better results lately? The Nashville Predators. The Preds posted a 4-1 win in New York against the Islanders on Friday night for their seventh win in nine tries. Kevin Lankinen was a monster in net versus the Isles, making 48 saves for the W. He’s certainly been a backup upgrade for this team and starter Juuse Saros has rounded into form after a tough start, going 6-0-1 in his past seven with a .934 save percentage.

• Slight inside baseball moment; every time a player on a team has, like, a four-game point streak, the bullet about it in the pre-game notes you get in any arena press box will inevitably lede with “We’re going streaking!” Yes, Will Ferrell circa 2003 is a God. Well, so, too are Mitch Marner and Jason Robertson, who ran their points runs to 19 and 18 contests, respectively. And, best of all, they square off Tuesday night in Big D, which the league informs us is the first time in NHL history two players on streaks of 18 games or more will go head-to-head.

• Need another 20-year-old Ferrell reference? Good. That Dylan Cozens is so hot right now! His run may not stretch back as far as Marner or Robertson, but goodness is the Sabres centre white-hot of late. Cozens registered his second consecutive three-point game on Sunday as Buffalo took down the visiting San Jose Sharks. That gives the third-year NHLer with 13 points in his past eight outings. Last season was Tage Thompson’s breakout in Buffalo and he just kept trucking to another level. This year might be Cozens’ time to arrive.

• The Blues and Blueshirts are hurting. In St. Louis, the coach is basically telling the goalie to quit being an idiot and stop the puck. That’s, uh, not what you want. St. Louis has been shockingly streaky this year, losing eight straight, then winning seven in a row and now dropping five of six after getting thumped 6-2 by Pittsburgh on Saturday. Most concerning, St. Louis has given up 5.2 goals-per-game during this most recent half-dozen game run of ineptitude.

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The Rangers, meanwhile, have one win in their past six after losing at home to Ottawa on Friday and getting spanked 5-2 — on MSG ice again, no less — by the bottom-feeding Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. Igor Shesterkin has not found the MVP-type form he had last year and beyond the “Core Four” of Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Chris Kreider, the Rangers just aren’t getting enough offence, which is why they rank 21st in goals-per-game.

Weekend Warrior

Brady Tkachuk registered a Gordie Howe hat trick on Friday — the goal was the OT winner — then put another one in the back of the net 24 hours later and matched the four points his team got this weekend with four of his own. That’ll get the nod from us.

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (15-5-6) Marner’s point streak — a new franchise record — is obviously the headline, but the real story might be what this patchwork defence corps has done the past few weeks without Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie and Jake Muzzin.

2. Winnipeg Jets (15-7-1) Two assists for Kyle Connor during Sunday’s comeback win over the visiting Ducks, giving the left winger eight points in his past six games. Dylan Samberg also buried his first big-league goal.

3. Edmonton Oilers (14-11-0) Nothing to see here, just another game in which Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl combine for eight points in a 5-3 victory over Montreal on Saturday.

4. Calgary Flames (11-10-3) Andrew Mangiapane netted a pair in the victory over Washington on Saturday, just his fifth and sixth tallies of the year coming off the front-loaded 35-goal showing last season. Boy, would it help the Flames if he could settle into scoring at a 25-goal pace.

5. Montreal Canadiens (12-11-1) After losing in Edmonton, the Habs are 1-1-0 halfway through their western roadie, with stops in Vancouver and Seattle to come on Monday and Wednesday.

6. Vancouver Canucks (10-12-3) Spencer Martin was in goal for the 3-2 extra-time victory over the Coyotes on Saturday and it’s his net now with the news that Thatcher Demko will be sidelined for roughly six weeks.

7. Ottawa Senators (10-13-1) Thomas Chabot bagged one in the win over San Jose and the defenceman now has six points in five games since returning from a concussion on Nov. 25. Is the worm turning for Ottawa?

The Week Ahead

• Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals visit McDavid and the Oilers on Monday. With a goal, Ovie would pull to within 100 tallies of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark of 894, right where No. 99 buried so many of them.

• It’s a big week for coaching returns. Bruce Cassidy, who had a .672 points percentage in 399 games with the Bruins, returns to Boston on Monday night with the rest of the Vegas Golden Knights. On Tuesday, Derek Lalonde — who won two Cups as a Tampa Bay assistant — will be back in Florida as head man behind the Red Wings bench. Meanwhile, nearly one year after he stepped down in Winnipeg, Paul Maurice returns to Manitoba as bench boss of the Florida Panthers that same night.

• A little more than a week after hosting Matthew Tkachuk, the Flames will see old friend Johnny Gaudreau in Columbus on Friday.

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