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Lightning, Blackhawks at playoff crossroads

Remember how peaking too early became a huge topic here in the halcyon days of 2007? The Sabres started their Presidents Trophy season 10-0 but never seemed to have their edge in the second half or in any of the three rounds of the playoffs. And they easily could have gone down to the Rangers in Round Two, were it not for Chris Drury’s iconic tying goal late in Game Five.

The discussion comes to mind because of what’s suddenly happening in Tampa Bay and Chicago. The defending conference champions were flying high for long stretches and seemed headed for another deep playoff run. Now there are doubts creeping in.

The Lightning and Blackhawks, in fact, have major work to do to simply avoid being wild-cards when it looked like they were on board to become division champions and have a good shot to repeat their trip to the Stanley Cup final.

(The view from here is you can’t instantly anoint the Capitals to the ultimate Cup showdown out of the East. Remember, they have never played in an East final in the Alex Ovechkin era. Even if they become the first team to 60 wins in the last 20 years, there will be huge questions about them that need to be answered in the postseason).

The Lightning were just 19-17-4 on Jan. 5 before finally figuring things out with a seven-game winning streak and a 10-1 stretch. Even in the wake of the Jonathan Drouin controversy, they then put together a franchise-record nine-game win streak and bolted past Florida into first place in the Atlantic.

But things have suddenly slipped, as they were 1-4-1 heading into Saturday’s game in Arizona. They lost twice to Philadelphia, were complete no-shows in 4-1 loss in Toronto and blew a trio of leads in Thursday’s 4-3 loss in Dallas.

They gave up two goals and were outshot, 17-4, in the third period of that game.

“We’re playing like a fragile team that’s scared to lose and not hungry to close out a game,” captain Steven Stamkos, who had two goals, told Tampa reporters afterward. “We can’t let that fear of losing creep in at this time of year.”

As it had earlier in the season, the Tampa offense suddenly went into a deep freeze, getting shut out or scoring just one goal three times in a four-game stretch. The power play hit an 0-for-19 run until breaking through twice in Dallas.

The cryptic message from coach Jon Cooper: “Got to start winning or we won’t play much longer.”

The third period in Dallas was particularly troubling for Cooper, because his team had been 31-1 when leading after two periods.

“To come out and play the way we did was a little puzzling, to be honest,” Cooper said. “The guys in the room need to hold themselves accountable. We were doing everything right for two periods, then come out and change the way we played. We have to be better than that.”

The Blackhawks have to be better too. If they slip into a wild-card, they could be a looking at a first-round matchup with Los Angeles (first round!). They got some breathing room over Nashville with Friday’s 4-0 win in Winnipeg, a game that snapped an 0-3-1 slide and pushed them five points ahead of the Preds.

As it is, however, the Hawks are likely looking at a dicey first round against either Dallas or St. Louis.

Since their 12-game winning streak ended Jan. 21 in Tampa, the Hawks are a stunningly pedestrian 9-11-2. With Friday’s game scoreless in the second period, coach Joel Quenneville put Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews together, taking Kane away from seasonlong linemates Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov and putting Marian Hossa in that spot.

Kane and Hossa responded with goals 26 seconds apart, with Hossa getting No. 498 of his career. Quenneville said the move was just a temporary one. Still, the goals were a big relief to a Chicago team that’s somehow 24th in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals (the Sabres, by the way, are 27th).

“Joel kind of goes off his feel,” Kane said. “I don’t know if it’s anything that will continue, but if I’m with the two Russians, I’m happy playing with them. If I’m with” Toews, “that’s great, too. We’ll see what happens next game.”

The concern, of course, is the Hawks have been living off their power play and you don’t get as many chances in the playoffs. Their schedule the rest of the way lightens up. Their finish could portend how long they last this spring.

Expansion choices

The word that came out of last week’s general manager meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., should quell a ton of uneasiness that teams had about any potential expansion draft. With the tanking Canadian dollar seemingly ready to kill Quebec City’s bid, it looks like Las Vegas or bust for expansion in the next couple of years.

And if that happens, the word is that teams will only be able to lose one player off their rosters. While nothing is official, what emerged from the meetings is that teams will get to choose one of two protection patterns: You can opt to protect one goalie, seven forwards and three defensemen, or one goalie and eight total skaters.

First- and second-year pros are exempt, so the Sabres would undoubtedly like expansion done next year so they wouldn’t have to use two spots to protect Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. If it carries to 2018, those two players would have to be protected and others would thus be left off the list.

There is no definitive word on no-movement clauses (think Matt Moulson), but it seems like the Players Association will want those players exempt as well.

The immediate speculation when those rules surfaced was twofold: A Las Vegas team will have its choice of some pretty good goalies with teams allowed to protect only one, and there could be a lot of trades after next season as teams move players they can’t protect to try to get draft picks rather than lose that player for nothing.

We should know by the NHL awards show in Vegas and the draft in First Niagara Center in June what the parameters are. The word about expansion has to come down by then for a Las Vegas team to start play in 2017-18. Otherwise, we’re looking at a 2018-19 debut.

OT oddity for Habs

According to Hockey-Reference.com, in a query run by Adam Gretz of CBS Sports, the overtime goal scored here Wednesday by Montreal’s Paul Byron marked the third time this season an NHL player scored in a game without being credited with a shot on goal.

Scorers have the right to deny the shot on goal if an “own goal” is scored. And the ruling was, in fact, that Sabres defenseman Zach Bogosian had possession when he directed the puck into the net on Byron’s pass. It leads to the scoring oddity for Byron and for the Habs, who won the game despite officially having no shots on goal in the OT.

The other shotless players with goal this year are Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau at the New York Islanders on Dec. 15 and Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at St. Louis on Oct. 8. Three times in one season is very unusual; it had happened just nine times from 1989 through the end of the 2014-15 season.

Two of those occurrences were by the Sabres, Derek Roy in 2008 vs. Los Angeles and Tim Connolly in 2009 at Florida

Icy home for Sharks

What’s up with the Sharks’ bad home record? Could be the ice at SAP Center. San Jose entered Saturday just 14-15-3 at home – compared to 25-10-3 on the road – and CSNBayarea.com reported last week the team is bringing in dehumidifiers to try to better control humidity in the building. It’s been a rainy winter in California and the rink gets heavy use now with the Sharks’ AHL team moving in this season.

The Sabres’ 3-1 win there Feb. 26 included a Johan Larsson goal on a play that started when a simple cross-ice pass between San Jose defensemen bounced over the stick of Brendan Dillon.

“It just goes to show how bad the ice is here on a nightly basis,” defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic after that game.

After a recent loss to New Jersey, it was suggested to Sharks coach Peter DeBoer the team needed to simplify the game for the bad ice. Shot back DeBoer: “Maybe we fix the ice. How about that?”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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