TAMPA — After winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and reaching three straight finals, the Lightning have had more nationally-televised showcase games, from the heavily-plugged season openers to last season’s outdoor game in Nashville.
On Friday, the Lightning’s 8 p.m. home matchup against the Blues will be the second half of TNT’s Thanksgiving Showdown broadcast.
In advance of the game, we caught up with TNT studio analyst Rick Tocchet, an 18-year veteran as a player and former head coach, including two seasons with the Lightning (2008-10), to get his take on this year’s Lightning team. (Answers have been edited for clarity and length.)
We’re nearly a quarter of the way into the regular season. What have you seen from the Lightning so far?
With success, sometimes in the (salary) cap world you’re gonna get a chink in the armor. They have been the best franchise the last five, six years in wins, two Cups in a row. And when it’s a cap world, you have really good players and I think every year they’ve lost key pieces and eventually it’s going to catch up a little bit. What I see for this team, it’s caught up a little bit this year.
They’re a little bit inconsistent because they’ve had to stick guys in other roles and it’s going to take time. The one thing I see is that there’s not a lot of panic in their core guys — the (Brayden) Points and the (Steven) Stamkoses and (Nikita) Kucherov and (Victor) Hedman — you don’t see any panic in those guys even after a loss. And it comes from their coach. That’s what I marvel at.
They know that, “Hey, we just keep doing the right things, hopefully we develop some of these guys in different positions, some guys have been getting more ice time than they did in the past, and we’ll be okay in the end.” That’s what I see right now.
You mention that turnover. Are there any glaring surprises you’ve seen from this group in terms of personnel, good or bad?
It’s not glaring, but the bottom six, that’s what wins and loses you Cups, right? Obviously, the star players do, but I think if you asked the Lightning players, what was the difference and they’d say the bottom six. And I think that’s the one thing that they’re trying to develop.
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Can they typically develop those bottom six guys? Can they be guys that can change the momentum of a game, whether it’s a big hit, possession time or a goal? That’s it.
I keep a good watch on (goaltender Andrei) Vasilevskiy. He’s played a lot of hockey. Is he tired? I don’t know about the inside, so I kind of watch him a lot at the beginning of the year to see where he’s at, so he’s fresh down the stretch drive when they’re really going to need him.
The fatigue factor has been a common narrative with this team. What do you look for in evaluating that?
It’s hard to keep doing the right things and to do them over and over again. There’d be times when Tampa would lose a lead and in the past, they’d be able to lock it down. I don’t know if it’s a fatigue thing, a focus thing. I know (coach Jon Cooper) has a handle on that stuff.
Sometimes you’re gonna have uncharacteristic things that happen. And they’ve played a lot of hockey and it’s hard to keep pushing your top players every day to do the right thing. I have seen them blow some leads or let a team back in the game where in the past that never happened.
At this point, what’s the Lightning’s biggest obstacle in returning to a Stanley Cup final?
They’re the Tampa Bay Lightning, and they’ve also had this transition every year where they’ve lost people. And that’s a big part of it. That’s hard when you’ve got to constantly reload. One year, it might be three or four guys, one year might be two. But it’s a reload every year.
I think the hardest part for a coach, and Cooper’s done a masterful job of this, is keeping things fresh. You can’t always preach the same thing. The redundancy sometimes, I don’t want to use the word boring, but you need to bring up fresh things. I think Coop’s really good at that.
How would you describe right wing Nikita Kucherov’s game in one or two words?
Pressure player. When the heat’s on, that’s when he arrives. I love those types of guys. For me, when the heat is on, the plays he makes under pressure are just world class. Game 7s, overtimes. You’re down in the series and Game 3, he ends up with four points. That’s how I measure those types of players.
Not to discount every game, but sometimes I really don’t care that he’s not on his game on a (random) Tuesday night when you’re playing a lesser opponent. And I get it sometimes. When you’re a pressure player that always has pressure on you, it’s not like you’re taking the night off, but he just needs to breathe a little bit. It’s just the higher the pressure, the better he plays.
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