At the beginning of the season, most everyone who follows the NHL viewed the Tampa Bay Lightning as a preseason Cup contender. They had just gone to their third conference title appearance in four years, and looked to be one of the favorites to make it at least that far again this year. Many, including myself, picked them to win the President’s Trophy for having the most points in the regular season in the NHL. Even with these lofty expectations, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how successful the Lightning have been this year.
They currently sit at a record of 50-12-4, with 104 points in 66 games. They had a stretch where they won 21 of 24 games (only two of those losses were in regulation) between late November and early January, and have currently won 11 of their last 12 games (including a franchise-best 10 game winning streak that was recently snapped). In fact, they are on a historic pace, looking to approach or even break the league records in single-season wins (62 by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings) and points (132 by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens). With the salary cap making the talent distribution in the league much more even than it was back when these records were set, this may could arguably be the best regular season in NHL history.
The statistics the Lightning are putting up this season are staggering. They currently lead the league in power play percentage (a ridiculous 28.9%), penalty kill percentage (a similarly ridiculous 86%), and goals per game (3.82), plus they sit tied for third in goals against per game (2.62). They boast an overwhelming goal differential of +84, by far the best in the league.
Moreover, the Lightning are probably not only the most talented team in the league, but also the most balanced. They boast the league’s leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov (who has 31 goals and 75 assists for 106 points and is running away with the Art Ross Trophy) on their first line with Steven Stamkos (33g-44a-77p) and Brayden Point (36g-44a-80p), the deadliest line in the league. But behind this first line are three more that can all contribute and score goals, with insanely scary depth up front. If you try and divert all your attention to the first line, talented forwards like Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, JT Miller, Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, and Ondrej Palat will kindly take the opportunity to score on you. The blue line is no less scary, with defending Norris winner Victor Hedman once again playing shut-down hockey. Behind him, an experienced top-pairing defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, grizzled veterans Dan Girardi and Braydon Coburn, and young studs Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak round out a blue line that can both contribute regularly in scoring and play incredibly stout and responsible defensively. Finally, the goaltending tandem is one of the best in the league, with Andrei Vasilevskiy playing at a Vezina-caliber level (30-7-0 record, 2.25 goals against average, .931 save percentage, 6 shutouts) and backup Louis Domingue getting the job done when called upon. With an incredibly potent attack up front, a shut-down blue line, and lights-out goaltending, Tampa Bay shows no real weaknesses.
So, can anyone beat this team in a seven game series come playoff time? The task will be tall, but I think it is doable. So how could you go about trying to beat a team of this caliber? The first and most important step to beating the Lightning is by playing disciplined, mistake-free hockey. From the limited action I’ve seen from the Lightning this year (mainly three ass-whoopings they laid on the Columbus Blue Jackets), they feast on the mistakes their opposition makes. One simple turnover or breakdown in coverage, and the puck ends up in the back of your net. Moreover, with how lethal their power play is, any penalties you take usually means a goal against you. Even if you contain them or even outplay them for the majority of the game, it just takes a couple of mistakes for Tampa to even the score or take the lead, which makes playing them incredibly frustrating. However, if you can minimize mistakes, that reduces their offensive effectiveness.
Similarly, your goaltending has to be superb for you to stand a conceivable chance against the Lightning. With how much firepower and scoring capability the Lightning have, you cannot afford to give up softies and have to make some grade A stops on some high-end chances as well. If your goalie cannot stand on his head and play some really good hockey in a series versus these guys, it will likely make for some long nights and a short series.
You also have to be able to generate lots of high-quality opportunities yourself. Some of their pieces are young and don’t have as much playoff experience (especially Sergachev and Cernek on the back end), a potential weakness that can be exploited come playoff time. Additionally, you cannot be afraid to be aggressive on the forecheck and create some chaos in front of Vasilevskiy. Create some screens and get down into the dirty areas to create some high-quality chances, because if you’re content to just shooting it at Vasilevskiy with no chaos, chances are he’ll likely stop it. If you can create some high-quality chances though, you can get a couple past him.
The Lightning are the heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup, boasting the most talented and possibly the most balanced lineup in the league. They’ve put up insane numbers, are on a historic pace, and quite frankly look like they are ready to steamroll any team in their path right now. However, if a team is able to play disciplined, mistake-free hockey, has a hot goaltender, and can create some high-quality scoring chances, they are capable of knocking off the Lightning come playoff time. The winner of the President’s Trophy has been met with a second-round playoff elimination each of the last three years, so history is also somewhat against them. However, with how talented and balanced a team they are icing, it is Stanley Cup or bust in Tampa.