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Can The Tampa Bay Lightning Shake Off Last Year’s Playoff Debacle?

With just two months to go in the NHL’s regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are back in a familiar role: Stanley Cup favorites. According to an average of the title probabilities found at Hockey-Reference.com and the futures odds from Vegas,1 Tampa Bay currently has a league-best 10.8 percent chance of hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug for the first time since 2004. And it makes sense — the Bolts have a ridiculous amount of talent on hand, including goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy; forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point; and blueliners Victor Hedman and Kevin Shattenkirk. This is exactly the kind of stacked roster that should expect to contend for the Cup.

The only issue might be shaking off the nightmare of last year’s postseason collapse. Armed with a similarly devastating lineup and a record-setting regular-season resume, Tampa Bay promptly laid one of the biggest eggs in playoff history with a stunning four-game defeat at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. In a postseason full of chaos, the Lightning told all the other fallen favorites to hold their Cigar City IPA.

Of course, last season’s devastating upset is just this season’s inspiring redemption narrative. So can the 2019-20 Bolts succeed where the 2018-19 version failed?

On paper, this year’s Lightning have not played quite as well as last year’s did. But let’s be fair: It would have been almost impossible to replicate Tampa Bay’s 2018-19 regular-season dominance. A year ago, the Bolts won 62 games (tying the all-time single-season record set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96) and lost in regulation only 16 times. In a sport far more chaotic than basketball,2 Tampa Bay’s record came shockingly close to those of the best NBA teams ever. Along the way, the Lightning led the NHL in goals scored by a margin of 30 over the runner-up Calgary Flames, with Kucherov winning MVP honors after leading the league in scoring with 128 points — the most by any player in a season since Jaromir Jagr tallied 149 in 1995-96. Meanwhile, Vasilevskiy also won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. When it came to lighting the lamp and stopping the puck, the Lightning could do it all.

Until they couldn’t. Against Columbus, Tampa Bay’s high-flying offensive attack never got off the ground, averaging just 2.0 goals per game (with a 6.8 percent shooting percentage) after registering 3.9 goals (and 12.2 percent shooting) during the regular season. Kucherov mustered only 2 points and was suspended for Game 3 after a dangerous hit on Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara, while all of the Bolts’ next three leading regular-season scorers — Stamkos, Point and Hedman — were limited to 3 points combined. Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was outstanding, Columbus’s forecheck largely negated the Lightning’s vaunted speed, and the underdogs stifled Tampa’s deadly power play as well, as the Bolts scored only one goal with the man advantage after leading the league with 74 power-play markers during the regular season.

Making matters worse, the Blue Jackets torched Vasilevskiy at the other end of the ice. Columbus converted 17.6 percent of their shots against Tampa Bay, averaging 4.8 goals per game against a team that had allowed only 2.7 during the regular season. After leading the league in penalty kill percentage (85 percent) going into the playoffs, the Lightning allowed five power-play goals in 10 chances (a kill rate of just 50 percent) during the four-game sweep. It was yet another example of how fickle postseason goaltending can be, as well as how a favorite’s worst tendencies — the less-than-disciplined Lightning served the NHL’s third-most penalty minutes during the regular season, then took even more versus Columbus — can come back to haunt it in a playoff series.

Still, the Lightning had no choice but to move on from the defeat and regroup. And they’ve done a good job of keeping perspective on the bigger picture this season. Coach Jon Cooper believed that one reason for Tampa Bay’s meltdown was a lack of a real challenge over most of the team’s record-setting regular season campaign a year ago. “When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way,” he said after the defeat. “You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up.” So one goal this season was for the team to pace itself better — which may have shown up in a slow start but also in the team’s recent uptick in form, which included a 10-game winning streak from late December to mid-January.

We can visualize Tampa Bay’s progress against the standard of last season by using FiveThirtyEight’s favorite rating method, the Elo system — an experimental version of which I cooked up for hockey for our best-of-the-decade story back in December. According to Elo, the Lightning recently surpassed the Boston Bruins for the No. 1 spot in the league, with a rating of 1600.3 That’s not far from where the Lightning were through 50 games last season (1603) — and it’s not far from where they ended the season after the sweep by Columbus (1610):

Tampa Bay might be hard-pressed to match the all-time franchise high-water Elo mark of 1635 it achieved on April 6, 2019, after the regular-season finale and right before playoff disaster struck. The Lightning are scoring less (down to 3.6 per game, tied for fourth in the league) and allowing more goals (2.8 per contest, which ranks ninth lowest) than they did a season ago. But aside from some slight regression by the stars — most notably, Vasilevskiy, Kucherov and Point — the leaders of Tampa Bay’s current roster can basically stand toe-to-toe with the best performances from last year according to goals above replacement (GAR),4 which adds up the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on his box score stats.

How the 2018-19 and 2019-20 Lightning lineups stack up

Adjusted goals above replacement (GAR) for the top six forwards, top four defensemen and top goalie on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons

2018-19 Lightning 2019-20 Lightning
Pos Player Adj. GAR Pos Player Adj. GAR
RW Nikita Kucherov 27.0 RW Nikita Kucherov 21.7
C Steven Stamkos 21.0 C Steven Stamkos 18.6
C Brayden Point 20.9 C Brayden Point 15.2
C Tyler Johnson 9.7 C Alex Killorn 13.7
C Yanni Gourde 8.3 C Anthony Cirelli 10.8
C Anthony Cirelli 7.4 LW Ondrej Palat 10.7
D Victor Hedman 15.0 D Victor Hedman 17.3
D Ryan McDonagh 13.7 D Kevin Shattenkirk 14.4
D Mikhail Sergachev 7.6 D Mikhail Sergachev 11.3
D Erik Cernak 5.6 D Erik Cernak 4.5
G Andrei Vasilevskiy 27.4 G Andrei Vasilevskiy 19.5

Adjusted GAR is prorated to 82 team games. Current season data is through games on Feb. 2.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

If anything, the 2019-20 Lightning — who currently have seven players on pace for at least 50 points — might have superior scoring depth to last season’s squad, which saw only four players crack the 50-point barrier (perhaps making it easier to short-circuit the Lightning’s entire offense when the top line was neutralized). And in the midst of another good season, Vasilevskiy has to be looking forward to a postseason performance more in line with the ones he had in 2015-16 (.925 save percentage) and 2017-18 (.918) than last year’s dreadful showing (.856).

Plus, if the Lightning need inspiration to rebound from the most humiliating upset loss in their sport’s history, they can look no further than the Virginia Cavaliers men’s college basketball team. In 2018, the Cavs went into the NCAA Tournament as the top overall seed … and promptly became history’s first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed when they fell to Maryland-Baltimore County in the first round. Virginia didn’t panic, change playing styles or doubt its core talent, though — and the very next year, all it did was win the national championship to finish off one of the best comeback arcs in sports history. The Lightning, who were immediately installed as future Cup favorites last summer despite the defeat, have both the opportunity and the talent to write their own icy version of that redemption story — and they are finally rounding into the right form to pull it off.

Footnotes

  1. Adjusting for the take by scaling the sum total of all teams’ implied probabilities to 100 percent.

  2. In terms of conveying the same amount of information about team talent, it takes 36 NHL games to tell you as much as in 14 NBA games.

  3. Average is 1500.

  4. My own personal spin on Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold, which I calculate via regression and properly rescaling Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares to a better allotment of value among forwards, defensemen and goalies. (Forwards are assigned 60 percent of leaguewide value, defensemen 30 percent and goalies 10 percent; the metric also widens the distribution of league goaltending performances and balances total league offensive value against the value of defense plus goaltending.)

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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