Weekend Takeaways: Resilient Lightning primed for playoff push

Tampa Bay Lightning centre Steven Stamkos, right, celebrates his goal with centre Anthony Cirelli (71) and left wing Brandon Hagel, centre, during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s win on Saturday night was far from perfect. The Bolts were outshot 50-16 by the Florida Panthers in a game that saw Tampa build a 4-0 lead before allowing their state rivals to narrow that advantage to 4-3.

In the end, though, Tampa found a way to get it done and emerge with a much-needed 5-3 victory in the Eastern Conference wild-card chase.

In a sense, the game was a microcosm of the Lightning’s entire season. It hasn’t always been pretty and there’s been no shortage of adversity, yet the squad keeps punching and is looking more and more like it will soon make its 10th post-season appearance in the past 11 years.

And don’t get it twisted; making the playoffs is not something that can be taken for granted in this age of NHL parity. The defending champion Vegas Golden Knights are clinging to the final berth in the West; a New Jersey team many thought would challenge for the 2024 title will almost certainly miss the dance.

Just getting there is never a given, especially when you’ve absorbed some gut punches like Tampa has in the past six months or so. Training camp opened with captain Steven Stamkos acknowledging there hadn’t been much in the way of contract extension talks with the club and did not sound thrilled about that fact. Shortly thereafter, it was revealed star goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy required back surgery and would miss significant time at the start of the year.

A little over a month ago, on Feb. 7, Mikhail Sergachev returned from a 17-game absence versus the New York Rangers and wound up enduring an excruciating injury at Madison Square Garden that saw him fracture both his tibia and fibula. The second-best defenceman on the club will finish with 34 games played this season.

In large part to fill that void, general manager Julien BriseBois went hard after former Calgary Flame Noah Hanifin at the deadline, only to see the blue-liner land in Vegas after it seemed like he was Tampa-bound.

So, once again, Plan B became necessary and Tampa is now home to blue-liner Matt Dumba as well as winger Anthony Duclair.

Sure enough, Dumba has turned in some decent third-pair play through three games with his new team, while Duclair — after grabbing an apple versus his old teammates on Saturday — has two goals and three points with the Bolts.

Of course, this team lives and dies with the elite quartet of Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point. Kucherov scored the ENG that clinched the win over Florida, and his two-point game has him just two shy of Nathan MacKinnon in the scoring chase.

All four of those guys have been on fire since the calendar flipped to March and Vasilevskiy — who struggled for a long time to find his game after debuting in November — is playing some of his best hockey right now, too. Following his 47-save showing versus the Panthers, the Russian has a respectable .911 save percentage in his past five outings.

Is that up to his own high standards? No. But like his team — now winners of three straight contests — Vasilevskiy is finding a way to fight through. If that continues, they’ll all get a valuable fresh start in the second season.

Other Takeaways

• This Art Ross chase Kucherov is a part of is something else. He picked up two points versus Florida, while MacKinnon and Connor McDavid went head-to-head in Edmonton on Saturday in a game that ended one second before the fourth period was set to expire when MacKinnon hit a streaking Artturi Lehkonen with an awesome backhand pass. McDavid was actually held off the scoresheet but is still on pace for 135 points. MacKinnon — the leader with 116 points in 68 outings — is tracking 140 points, the same number Kucherov (114 in 66) is on pace for. The NHL hasn’t seen a campaign where three guys hit 135 points since four players — Mario Lemieux, Pat LaFontaine, Steve Yzerman and Adam Oates — all did it 31 years ago in 1992-93.

• Speaking of points, the white-hot Roman Josi bagged two goals on Saturday to keep his — if not white — red-hot Nashville Predators chugging in a 4-1 road win over Seattle. Josi is producing at a 100-point clip from the blue line since Jan. 1, leading all D-men with 38 points in 31 contests in that time frame. Saturday was his second straight two-point game as the Preds have basically locked down a post-season spot by going 14 straight (12-0-2) without a 60-minute defeat.

• It was a big weekend for the new guys in Carolina. After missing more than a month with a fractured finger, former Pittsburgh Penguin Jake Guentzel played his third and fourth games with the Canes. On Saturday in Toronto, he drew an assist on the first late-game goal Carolina scored as it rallied from being down 4-2 to tie the Leafs. Guentzel then scored the only goal of the shootout to bag the extra point for his club. Twenty-four hours later, he tallied again as the Hurricanes thumped the Sens 7-2 in Ottawa and finished the weekend with a goal and three helpers.

Meanwhile, Evgeny Kuznetsov also tallied versus the Senators, picked up a total of three weekend points and suddenly has four points in his past three outings with his new club.

The idea for Carolina at the trade deadline was to scare up some goals and, so far, so good.

Weekend Warrior

Speaking of new guys, defenceman Sean Walker’s fourth game as a member of the Avalanche was a banger as he netted both regulation-time goals in the team’s 3-2 OT triumph over the Oilers. Both were nice tallies, but his second, in particular, was a beaut.

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Red and White Power Rankings

1. Winnipeg Jets (43-19-5): Still speaking of new guys, how about a four-goal, five-point weekend for new Jet Tyler Toffoli? The Jets shellacked the competition, crushing Anaheim 6-0 on Friday night and returning 48 hours later to destroy the Blue Jackets in Columbus by a 6-1 count as Toffoli bagged a brace in each contest. 

2. Edmonton Oilers (40-21-4): There was some sense Warren Foegele might have to be a cap causality depending on how the Oilers’ wheeling and dealing went ahead of the deadline. Happily for both player and team, the winger remained an Oiler, and his career year continued on Saturday with a goal versus the Avs. Foegele has hit the back of the net in each of his past two outings and his 16-19-35 line has established new career-highs across the board.

3. Toronto Maple Leafs (38-19-9): The Leafs’ late collapse against Carolina was obviously not ideal. You do wonder if the fact Toronto is basically locked into third place in the Atlantic — can’t go up, can’t go down — can allow for some complacency to creep in.

4. Vancouver Canucks (42-18-8): Another year, another improvement on his own franchise record for Quinn Hughes. For the third consecutive campaign, the Canucks captain has established a new mark for points by a defenceman after picking up No. 77 with an assist in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Capitals.

5. Calgary Flames (33-29-5): What a moment for Lanny McDonald, who — six weeks after a serious cardiac event — made his first appearance at the Saddledome since his health scare and received a monster ovation from the Flames faithful during a first-period TV timeout.

6. Montreal Canadiens (25-31-11): Cole Caufield snapped a 12-game goalless drought during the Canadiens’ 5-2 loss in Calgary. To be sure, the goals have not come as easily as many expected for Caufield this year (20 in 67 games), but his assist total (33) is by far a career-high and the youngster has rounded out his game nicely. The goals should return at some point.

7. Ottawa Senators (28-34-4): The Sens squeezed out an OT win on Saturday in Long Island, but were thumped on home ice one day later by Carolina. Ottawa doesn’t have a 60-minute win in its past dozen outings and has just four in its past 23 contests.

The Week Ahead

• It’s a big week for head-to-head matchups between the Leafs and league superstars. On Wednesday, Auston Matthews and the Buds visit Alex Ovechkin in D.C. ahead of a primetime showdown with McDavid and Oilers in Toronto on Saturday night.

• Thursday night brings a massive game in the Eastern Conference playoff chase, as Detroit hosts the Islanders.

Elias Lindholm will see his old Calgary teammates for the first time since being dealt to Vancouver just before the All-Star break when the Flames head to B.C. on Saturday. The Canucks will be well past the midway point of a big nine-game homestand at that point and need to get going after two consecutive defeats at Rogers Arena.

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