Friday, May 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

After sunny All-Star break, NHL playoff race is heating up

LOS ANGELES — Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were linemates. Connor McDavid scored on a pass from Ryan Kesler. Wayne Simmonds was the shooting star of the show.

The dreamlike quality of the NHL All-Star Game was particularly pronounced on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Hollywood. After all, just about every All-Star got to meet his hockey heroes when most of the game's greatest living players performed the ceremonial opening faceoff with them.

"I was pretty star-struck," Montreal goalie Carey Price said.

But when the league revs up again Tuesday night, including the Lightning hosting the Bruins at 7:30 at Amalie Arena, another dream comes into focus. Only 40 percent of the regular season remains, and there's a Stanley Cup to chase.

Few teams are out of the postseason race, and nearly every club is about to begin 10 weeks of high-stakes play. Most teams reported back to work on Monday morning, and the league schedule resumes Tuesday with 28 of the 30 teams in action.

Nobody is an overwhelming title favorite yet. The Canadiens' seven-point lead in the Atlantic is the biggest edge in a division race, and the competition for the Presidents' Trophy is still wide-open as well: There are 10 teams within nine points of Washington's league-leading 72 in the chase for home-ice advantage in the postseason.

"The All-Star (weekend) a great time, but we all know what happens when we have to get back to work," San Jose captain Joe Pavelski said.

Here's a quick preview of the four divisional races and what's coming up in the NHL's home stretch:

ATLANTIC

The Canadiens have bounced back smartly from last season's second-half collapse without the injured Price, and Les Habitants' nearest competitors all have problems: Ottawa's goal-scoring woes, Boston's inconsistent play and powerful Tampa Bay's major injuries have all put a cushion underneath the Canadiens.

But that cushion isn't as big as it looks. The Senators have three games in hand on Montreal, and the Lightning hopes to get Steven Stamkos back for the late playoff push.

And the Toronto Maple Leafs? They've got problems, as you'd expect for a team that's made the postseason once since 2004. They've also got All-Star Auston Matthews, fellow high-scoring youngsters Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, and more than enough talent to be dangerous down the stretch.

PACIFIC

The race out West is particularly enticing: San Jose, Anaheim and upstart Edmonton are separated by one point atop the division.

McDavid and the Oilers have hung in with the division's three California powers all winter, capped by back-to-back road victories over the Ducks and Sharks to close out the first half.

"We've put ourselves in a good position, and we're happy about that," McDavid said. "We realize how much work we have left to do, because this is a long season. None of it means very much if you don't finish out the way you started."

The Golden State's trio of contenders isn't about to give up.

The Ducks have won four straight Pacific titles, and they're hoping coach Randy Carlyle can inspire postseason success that Bruce Boudreau couldn't. The Sharks look easily capable of defending their Western Conference title, and the Los Angeles Kings should get star goalie Jonathan Quick back from injury shortly before the postseason.

CENTRAL

The Minnesota Wild and the Chicago Blackhawks are in tight competition atop the division. Boudreau got the Wild off to their best start to a season in franchise history, and All-Star goalie Devan Dubnyk is having another standout season. This could be the year Minnesota reaches its first Stanley Cup Final, or at least wins two playoff rounds for the first time since 2003.

Of course, the team that beat them in the second round twice in the past three years is right behind them in the Central standings — and it just happens to be the best playoff team of this era.

Chicago returns with three of the 100 greatest players in NHL history in its lineup. Captain Jonathan Toews admits he isn't having a great season, but he has plenty of time to ramp up for another playoff run with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith.

METROPOLITAN

The best divisional race might be among the stars who won the four-division, 3-on-3 tournament at the All-Star Game. A four-team competition has swung back and forth in the Metropolitan, with Columbus streaking in front on its 16-game winning streak, only to be passed by Washington two weeks ago.

The Capitals' fretful fans might think they've peaked too soon yet again, but nobody gets comfortable with Crosby's Penguins lurking behind them. The defending Stanley Cup champions begin the second half in third place, just seven points back.

Comments
Steve Yzermanís summer plans: Make the Lightning better

Steve Yzermanís summer plans: Make the Lightning better

TAMPA — Captain Steven Stamkos said the Lightning's window for contending for a Stanley Cup championship is not closing."I think it's wide open," he said one day after the Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to the Capitals.Ge...
Updated: 12 hours ago
When will the Lightning run out of wait-til-next-years?

When will the Lightning run out of wait-til-next-years?

TAMPA — Disbelief will eventually give way to acceptance.The Lightning isn't there yet.It isn't there yet in a lot of ways.Will it ever be?Just wondering.Really, what guarantees are there?Late Wednesday, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechki...
Published: 05/24/18
Fight off the frustration, Lightning, and donít panic

Fight off the frustration, Lightning, and donít panic

TAMPA — Don't change a thing.Don't blow it up. Don't fire anyone. Don't overreact.Thursday was not an easy day in Lightning Land. It was the day after the end of a season that ended much too soon. It was a day when bags were packed, questions w...
Published: 05/24/18
Lightning journal: Ryan Callahan, among others, played hurt

Lightning journal: Ryan Callahan, among others, played hurt

TAMPA — Not surprisingly, several Lightning players went through the playoffs with what general manager Steve Yzerman called "significant injuries."He would not elaborate Thursday on who they were, though he said that information will be made p...
Published: 05/24/18
Lightning fans leaving Game 7 early: Understandable or bad form?

Lightning fans leaving Game 7 early: Understandable or bad form?

TAMPA — Lightning fans were heading for the exits with three minutes remaining in Tampa Bay's 4-0 loss to Washington Wednesday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. Understandable given the disappointment of not reaching the Stanley C...
Published: 05/24/18
The single biggest reason Tampa Bay isnít headed to the Stanley Cup final

The single biggest reason Tampa Bay isnít headed to the Stanley Cup final

TAMPA — Washington is on to Vegas. The Lightning is not. So we asked the Times' Lightning coverage team for the single biggest reason Tampa Bay isn't headed to the Stanley Cup final. Here's their answers:Roger Mooney, staff writer: Th...
Published: 05/24/18
Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Scoring drought brings Lightning season to a close

Sports Day Tampa Bay podcast: Scoring drought brings Lightning season to a close

The Lightning will miss out on the Stanley Cup final after being shut out by the Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final. The Bolts were the highest-scoring team during the regular season but failed to score in almost all of the final eigh...
Published: 05/24/18
Postgame reactions from Lightningís Game 7 loss to the Capitals

Postgame reactions from Lightningís Game 7 loss to the Capitals

The Lightning was shut out once in the first 97 games of the season, the playoffs included. Then it was shut out during the last two games of the Eastern Conference final, including 4-0 on Wednesday to the Capitals in Game 7.Here are some postgame re...
Published: 05/24/18
Lightning journal: A rare fight to this finish

Lightning journal: A rare fight to this finish

TAMPA — After Alex Ovechkin's goal 62 seconds into Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday, the next highlight was an extended fight between Lightning D Braydon Coburn and Capitals RW Tom Wilson, with a two-minute break for them to spe...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18
Lightningís season ends one win short of Stanley Cup final with 4-0 loss to Capitals

Lightningís season ends one win short of Stanley Cup final with 4-0 loss to Capitals

TAMPA — The Lightning's dream season ended late Wednesday with the final horn, or, if you prefer, early in the second period of Game 5, when it scored its last goal of the Eastern Conference final.How about that? The team with the most regular-...
Published: 05/23/18
Updated: 05/24/18