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Bolts eliminated from playoffs as Maple Leafs rally past Pittsburgh

The ride has ended. The Tampa Bay Lightning are going home.

The Lightning was eliminated from the NHL playoffs Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs came from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-3, in Toronto. For the Lightning to make the post-season, it needed Toronto to lose to both Pittsburgh Saturday and Columbus on Sunday, while the Bolts would have had to beat Buffalo.

Instead, the game will be played with no more meaning but to say farewell to their fans.

Pittsburgh led 3-2 in the third period, but Toronto came back. Connor Brown scored the go-ahead for Toronto with his 20th goal with 2:48 to play. Auston Matthews scored his 40th goal with an empty netter.

Lightning’s Steven Stamkos might not play the rest of the year

The Tampa Bay Lightning had hoped that Steven Stamkos would make a triumphant return to the lineup that would power team team in a late-season push for the playoffs.

Evidently, neither will happen.

Stamkos said Thursday that it “wasn’t looking good” for a return to the ice before the regular season ends Sunday.

“It’s probably not looking that good,” Stamkos told the Tampa Bay Times.  “It’s frustrating from an individual perspective where I want to be out there trying to help my team — especially at this (time of) year — but it just doesn’t feel right.”

“If it doesn’t feel right, you can’t expect to be able to go out there and do the things you can when you’re healthy,” Stamkos said. “Obviously with a significant injury, which it was, we want to make sure things heal so you don’t have to deal with it again. It’s tough. I want to be out there as much as anyone. I think I showed that last year coming back for Game 7 (of the Eastern Conference Final).”

Stamkos said when he feels right, he’ll be back, pointing out it was most likely a five-month recovery from the start (which would put it in mid-April). The biggest issue is that his knee flexion is “very limited.”

“It’s gotten better, we kind of hit a pleateau, it was frustrating,” Stamkos said. “There was no setback. Everything still progressed. But it wasn’t a minor procedure. This is pretty major, and there are a lot of working parts when it comes to the knee with having the tissue heal, scar tissue. Things that are kind of behind the scenes that have been tough. We’ve been working hard, just hasn’t been there yet.”

Stamkos had gotten his year off well. He scored nine goals in 17 games before his injury.

The Lightning, on the brink of elimination, plays the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight.

Nikita Kucherov’s overtime goal leads Lightning to another win

The Tampa Bay Lightning continues to be contrarians.

Following a three-game losing streak that looked as if it was going to finish the team, the Bolts responded with a two-game winning streak on the road that might end up saving them.

The Lightning beat the Detroit Red Wings Friday night, 2-1 in overtime, to pull within one point of the Bruins and Islanders for the final wild-card spot. The Bruins and Islanders play each other today.

The Lightning now has at least a point in 11 of its last 12 road games (8-1-3).

Nikita Kucherov won the game for the Bolts with a goal in overtime. It was his 38th goal of the season, and his seventh in the last four games. Earlier, Ondrej Palat had scored to tie the game at 1.

It just feels good to win this game,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “We had a tough little stretch there where we lost three in a row at home, and you sit here and say every game’s a must win, but let’s be honest, we don’t come out with four points in this, we’re in trouble. To come in on the back-to-back and be down in the third and to gut one out, pretty proud of the guys.

Losing would have been devastating for us, and that’s the way it is. When you’re not just trying to catch one team, you’re catching multiple teams, that’s why it’s hard to do. Really, you’ve just got to sit here and say the only destiny you can control is your own. That was the big conversation going into the third period. We had the one-goal lead against Arizona the other night and let it slip away, now we’re down a goal, what are we going to do here? The guys just talked about what needed to be done to win a hockey game, and they found a way.”

Cooper talked about the ascension of Kucherov, who has carried the Bolts as of late.

The biggest thing for me, what I think what’s really changed for him and it actually didn’t look like it tonight, but he’s been shooting the puck,” Cooper said. “And probably a month and a half ago, he’d show up on the sheet with one or zero shots, and I thought a big turning point was in Colorado, he didn’t score but I think he had eight or nine shots on goal that night. And the next night he had seven and scored, and it’s just taken off ever since. He got the big one tonight, but he passed up a couple really good looks where he can score. When Kuch is getting into that three to six shot a night range, pucks go in for guys like him. That’s what he’s doing, he’s creating space for himself, he’s fighting through stuff and, as I said, your best players got to be your best players and he’s a big reason why we’re back in this race.”

Tampa Bay is off until Monday when it plays Chicago.

  

Lightning embarrassed by Arizona with defeat in playoff drive

Quick question: If a team is going to be embarrassed by the second-worst team in the NHL, what does it say?

Other than, for a night, that the Tampa Bay Lightning was among the worst.

The Lightning blew every advantage Tuesday night. They were playing the second-worst team in the league, the Arizona Coyotes. They were at home. They held a lead in the third period. They were playing with playoffs in mind.

And still, they lost a 5-3 game to Arizona, an embarrassing game that might help keep them from the post-season.

The Bolts gave up five goals for the third straight game, and they lost again.

“You have to keep the puck out of your net if you’re going to win,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “In our last two games, we’ve scored three. In the past, when we’ve made a commitment to play defense, we’ve won those games. If you’re not going to defend, you’re not going to win.”

Cooper offered up an interesting statistic. Arizona blocked 25 shots on Tuesday night; the Bolts blocked only six.

Still, the Bolts had a chance to win. Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Vlad Namestnikov scored to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead. Still, Arizona came back to win.

The Lightning, impossibly, is still only four points out of a playoff spot. But as Cooper said, “We’re running out of real estate.”

Tampa Bay now goes on the road, facing Boston and Detroit.

Lightning’s Steven Stamkos still watching as his knee heals

The calvary might not be in a hurry to rescue the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Although injured center Steven Stamkos took part in a full practice Friday, he still has no timetable for his return. He might not make it back before the end of the regular season, which has 12 games to go. The Lightning continues to exist just beyond the final wild-card berth,

“When it’s 100 percent, I’ll be back,” Stamkos said Friday to the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s a question I can’t answer. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in this rehab process, where it feels like it’s never going to get better. Then you have a week where it goes through the roof in regards to how you’re feeling.

“I’ll be playing when it feels ready. And I can’t say it feels ready right now. But it was a start.”

Stamkos said the Lightning’s recent stretch — going 12-3-3 to get back into the playoff conversation — has given him a lift in his rehab.

“This has been the toughest by far,” Stamkos said. “I think mentally, you know what to expect. Physically, this one was the toughest with the type of injury it was. It was a grind. There were a lot of days, especially when it happened. Hopefully, that’s it, the string of bad luck is over.”

Stamkos was off to a strong start when he was injured.

“There’s a lot of what could have been,’ Stamkos said. “But that’s life. Things like that happen. You get tested in a lot of different ways. It’s tough to watch the guys struggle. I see the season unfold the way it has. It’s encouraging the way things have gone lately. It has helped me in the process as well.”

Stamkos said he’ll be back when he is ready.

“When there’s no restrictions, where you feel like you did before surgery,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, even when I came back from the broken leg, there was the curve that goes with coming back, the inflammation, the little bit of pain after. There shouldn’t be any uncomfortable moments on the ice. Obviously, some of that is mental too. I’ve been through this before, I have a good understanding of what my body needs to feel like in order to be back on the ice.”

Tampa Bay plays Washington Saturday.

Injuries mar big victory by Tampa Bay Lightning over Stars

The Tampa Bay Lightning is learning one of the oldest lessons in hockey.

Every time it gets a little bit of a gain, it finds itself in a little more pain.

The Bolts took a big victory Thursday night, beating the Minnesota Wild 4-1 at home. The Wild, 32-17-6, has been the best team in the Western Conference, while the Bolts are still struggling to make the playoffs.

As big as the win was, however, it came with a sting. The Bolts lost Tyler Johnson, Vlad Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette — all centers — to injuries to their left legs. Coach Jon Cooper had no further information on the injuries.

“It doesn’t sound encouraging for any of them,” Cooper said. “If we got one of them back for Saturday, it would be a blessing.”

Nikita Kucherov scored two goals for the Lightning, one on a power play (the first in 12 games for the Stars). Victor Hedman had a goal and an assist. Andrej Sustr also scored a goal for Tampa Bay.

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy won for the Bolts, continuing his play since the trading deadline.

“He’s definitely holding down the fort,” said Anton Stralman. Vasilevskiy stopped 32 of 33 shots.

“You’ve got to put that one up there (with the Lightning’s best wins),” Cooper said. “Especially that last 12 minutes when were limited in our players. We were responsible, gritty, gutty, getting in shot lanes.”

The Lightning is home Saturday night against Florida.

Nikita Kucherov’s fancy move gets shootout victory for Lightning

Nikita Kucherov brought the playground to Buffalo Saturday night.

In a shootout against the Sabres, Kucherov, of the Tampa Bay Lightning, swept toward the goal. He shot, then whipped his stick over the puck as it slid past Buffalo Sabres goalie Robin Lehner.

“He brought the schoolyard to the big stage,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “You better score on that, and he did.”

Tyler Johnson scored in regulation, and Brayden Point and Kucherov scored in the shootout for a 2-1 win.

Ryan O’Reilly scored in regulation for Buffalo.

“It definitely was on purpose,” Tyler Johnson said. “He does it in practice all the time. I think a lot of people mess around doing that but you never think in a NHL game. But that’s Kuch. That’s going to be a goal that’s on YouTube forever, so I can’t wait to see it.”

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy won his third straight game for the Bolts, stopping 31 of 32 shots in regulation and two more in overtime.

The Bolts are now within three points of the Islanders for the final wild-card slot.

Tampa Bay is home on Monday night against the Rangers.

Nikita Kucherov scores hat trick as Lightning beat Ottawa

Did you see that?

Want to see it again?

How about one more time?

The Tampa Bay Lightning played one of most inspired games of the season Monday night, blasting the second-place (Atlantic Division) Ottawa Senators 5-1. Nikita Kucherov blistered three straight shots in the second period into the net to lead the way.

It was the second Hat Trick of his career, with all three goals coming in a row in the second period. His scores were all similar – one timers from the circle to the goaltender’s left. All three snapped into the net in span of 17 minutes and nine seconds.

“Let’s go back a couple games,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “He had nine shots on goal, didn’t score. He had that mentality of, ‘I want to score.’ It wasn’t pass first, pass first, pass first. Then you get to the game after that, I think he had seven shots and he scored in the game. When the Calgary game came, he had zero shots after two periods. He ended up getting a couple shots at the end, but when he’s got that shooter’s mentality with the gift he has to put the puck in the back of the net, this is what happens.

“Now what’d he have: seven tonight? This will happen for him. Guys like Kuch, they’re special players. They have high hockey IQ’s. They want to make plays and sometimes it hurts them by making too many plays. When he’s got that shooter’s mentality, these are the type of things that happen.”

It was the kind of game that signals that maybe, just maybe, the Bolts are still in it despite the trades of goaltender Brian Bishop and forward Brian Boyle.

For instance, there was Kucherov’s magic. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy won his first game since Jan. 24, and collected only his third since Dec. 31, a span of 14 games. Vasilevskiy said he refused to think about Bishop’s trade, thinking only about stopping pucks instead. It worked for him.

Forward Jonathan Drouin had three assists on the night, and Brayden Point and Braydon Coburn scored goals.

The Bolts are home Wednesday night against Carolina.

Lightning’s Steve Yzerman thinks team can still make the playoffs

Even without the best goaltender in its history, general manager Steve Yzerman thinks the Tampa Bay Lightning can make the playoffs.

On the morning after trading Ben Bishop to the Los Angeles Kings, Yzerman said the post-season remains a goal.

“We’re still trying to make the playoffs,” Yzerman said. “This tandem (goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Bukaj) gives us a chance to win every night.”

Yzerman said his choice was this trade or to sit tight until the end of the season. He said one reason he made it now was to afford to pay off performance clauses of the young players.

That puts the team’s goaltending in the hands of Vasilevskiy, who Yzerman thinks will be a good one.

“To me, it’s more than a leap of faith,” Yzerman said. “I believe time will tell. I think he has all the tools to be an excellent starting goaltender for a long time. He’s going to be a very good starter. It’s the hardest position to play. There are ups and downs for every player. I think he has the desire and the fortitude to ride those downs out.”

At any rate, the immediate future belongs to Vasilevskiy, who is 11-13-5. The Bolts have won only one of his last eight starts (three overtimes).

Yzerman said the expectations are still high.

“Our goal is to win the Stanley Cup,” he said, “whether that’s this year, next year or two years from now.”

Tampa Bay Lightning trades goaltender Ben Bishop to Kings

The Tampa Bay Lightning traded away the best goaltender in their history Sunday night.

Now, the question is whether the team can make the playoffs without him.

The Bolts swapped Ben Bishop, who has won 128 regular season games over past three-plus seasons, to the Los Angeles Kings for goaltender Peter Budaj, defensive prospect Erik Cernak and two draft picks. It is a trade that will free up salary cap space for the Bolts, but it hurts them in this year’s playoff race. Bishop had won five straight games.

The trade had been talked about since the Lightning re-signed young goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to a new contract. Bishop was to be an unrestricted free agent.

Budaj actually had won as many games this season (27) as Bishop and Vasilevskiy combined. However, he is 34, and no one knows how long he’ll be able to help.

Cernak, a former No. 2 draft pick, has not left the minors for the Kings.

Budaj, 6 feet 1 and 196 pounds, played in 53 games with the Kings this season, taking over the No. 1 job after Jonathan Quick suffered a groin injury in the season opener. Quick returned Saturday night for his first game since the opener. Budaj was 27-20-3 with a 2.12 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage with seven shutouts. Budaj, 34, has appeared in 350 NHL games with Los Angeles, the Canadiens and the Avalanche, with a 152-127-39 record with 18 shutouts.

Cernak, 6-3 and 221 pounds, has played in 41 games with the junior Ontario League’s Erie Otters this season, with three goals and 17 points, and is plus-27. Cernak, 19, has played in 82 career OHL games with Erie, recording seven goals and 32 points, and is plus-34 rating.

Bishop had not played well much of this season, perhaps because of his contract status, because the upcoming salary cap and because Vasilevskiy had taken on more of a share of the net. However, his recent success brought his record to 16-12-3.

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