neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): After one of the weirdest seasons in NHL history, we finally have a champion! With a 1-0 victory Wednesday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished off the upstart Montreal Canadiens to win their second straight Stanley Cup and continue Tampa Bay’s run of sports dominance.
It’s been an undeniably impressive run for Tampa Bay these past few years, so we’ll talk about the big picture in a second, but first, I wanted to talk about this particular series against Montreal. What were the Lightning able to do against the Canadiens that several other heavy favorites — I’m thinking of the Vegas Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs specifically — couldn’t?
terrence.doyle (Terrence Doyle, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m gonna state the obvious and say that it helped to have Conn Smythe A and Conn Smythe B on their roster. Andrei Vasilevskiy was a deserved winner, but there’s a very strong case for Nikita Kucherov, too: 32 points in 23 games, including five in this series. He had 24 assists!
neil: Um, yes. Both played well in the Final — especially Vasy, who shut the door on Montreal multiple times in the clincher.
emily (Emily Scherer, designer): Would they really have given the Conn Smythe to Kucherov, though?
terrence.doyle: His was one of the great playoff performances of the post-lockout era: In that span, only Evgeni Malkin in 2009, teammate Brayden Point last season and Kucherov himself last season scored more points in a single playoffs. (Evgeny Kuznetsov also had 32 in the 2018 playoffs.)
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emily: Maybe my head is still wrapped up in the cap drama! But I have to wonder if Kucherov not playing during the regular season impacted that. I could also be completely overthinking this. The narrative of it!
terrence.doyle: Nah, I kinda also think that. It’s a narrative the league definitely would like to avoid, I imagine.
neil: I also think it’s really hard not to give it to the goalie when he plays this well. Among goalies with at least eight playoff wins, Vasilevskiy had one of the best goalie postseasons ever by save percentage.
terrence.doyle: Yeah, wow. He was unbelievably good.
emily: Kucherov himself clearly thought Vasilevskiy deserved it.
neil: It was sort of stark how much Vasilevskiy (with a .943 save percentage) outplayed Carey Price (.888) in the final. As we said in earlier chats, Price had been powering this Cinderella run for the Habs, so when he wasn’t stopping pucks — and he also didn’t really get a whole lot of help from his defense at times, either — it understandably ran out of steam.
terrence.doyle: I remember when the Bolts were basically like, “We don’t need Ben Bishop anymore” (it was a cap thing, but still), when he was one of the best goalies in the league at the time, imho. And it’s like, yeah, they really did not.
neil: Definitely. Tampa Bay has really had some great goaltending over the years — I think back to the Bulin Wall back when they won it the first time in 2004.
terrence.doyle: It is obviously very early, and I’m not trying to hang this kind of pressure on Vasy, but we might be looking at the future GOAT, folks. 👀
neil: We can talk about the historical angle for Tampa Bay in a second. One more factor on this particular series: Tampa Bay sort of beat Montreal at its own game. The Habs scored first in four of the six games against Vegas and held the lead for an average of 22:31 per game (compared with 11:11 for the Knights), but against the Lightning they led for only 5:20 per game (compared with 32:28 for TB).
This Tampa Bay team was almost impossible to beat by getting out front and making them play from behind, because they scored first in a record-tying 18 postseason games, including all 16 of their wins.
terrence.doyle: 5:20 per game, my word. That’s a thorough beatdown.
neil: I also found it extremely impressive that each of Tampa Bay’s closeout wins this postseason were shutouts, and the last two — Game 7 of the conference finals and Game 5 of the Cup final — were both by a score of 1-0. Although we think of the Bolts as a team with Kucherov, Point, Steven Stamkos and loads of other offensive talent, their defense and goaltending were just as big a factor in this title. They held opponents to 1.96 goals per game in the playoffs.
terrence.doyle: It might seem like a small thing, but the Bolts gave up a smaller share of high-danger chances during the playoffs than they did in the regular season. Which … give up fewer good chances, have a goalie who is saving the puck at a historically good clip, score on a third of your power plays and get maybe the best player in the world back for the start of the playoffs. Decent equation for success, it seems.
neil: Historically decent, one might even say.
terrence.doyle: LOL, yup!
neil: So after it became only the fourth team in the last 30 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, where should we rank this Tampa Bay group all-time? (I mean, Terrence, you just anointed Vasilevskiy the GOAT, so where do we go from here…?) Should we be talking about them as a dynasty?
terrence.doyle: I think so, yes. It’s probably the most difficult trophy to win in the Big Four leagues, right? So doing it back-to-back, which as you just said is rare, puts them in the dynasty conversation for me.
emily: Not only back-to-back, but only nine months apart.
terrence.doyle: That’s a great point, Emily. It’s so wild!
Plus, we don’t know what next season has in store. If they stay healthy, we could be talking about a three-peat, which hasn’t been done since that great early ’80s Islanders team, which won four in a row.
neil: That has to be the fewest days between Cups of any team ever, right?
emily: 282 days!
terrence.doyle: I cannot wait for the essay in 25 years about the kid who was conceived in celebration of the first Cup and born as they lifted the second.
neil: That story will come out as 68-year-old Tom Brady is winning yet another Super Bowl for the Bucs.
(Oh God, he’s gonna win it again this year, isn’t he?)
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neil: Tampa is the new Boston, what can we say.
terrence.doyle: Terrence has left the chat
terrence.doyle: Maybe it’s because I need something to criticize, but I can’t stop thinking about how this COULD HAVE BEEN the three-peat year for the Bolts.
neil: I mean, really it could have been a four-peat if they’d won Game 7 against Washington in the 2018 conference finals. (And then, yes, not flopped horribly in the 2019 postseason.)
terrence.doyle: Yeah, good point. I think that’s why I’m inclined to call this a dynasty. They’ve been incredibly good for an unusually long stretch.
emily: Dare I say dynasties are boring, though? This was a pretty wild and unpredictable playoffs, and yet it ended with the winner most everyone expected.
I guess the weird season wasn’t as weird as we thought.
terrence.doyle: Weird season is normal, actually.
neil: I think that’s why I wanted the Montreal run to continue. But the Canadiens finally ran into a team that was too complete for them.
terrence.doyle: I thought I wanted Montreal to win for the narrative, but I know if they did I’d be sick to my stomach. Sorry to my friends from Montreal.
neil: At least they got one win in Game 4, which was some pretty great hockey tbh.
terrence.doyle: Agreed. And tbh, I thought they played well enough to win Games 1 and 2 (and so did the expected goals). It was probably a closer series than the 4-1 would suggest.
neil: As for the Bolts, at the very least it seems like they have a strong case to have had the best multiyear run of any team in the salary cap era. According to Elo, the 2021 Lightning have the second-highest post-playoff rating of any champion since the 2005 lockout, trailing only the 2008 Detroit Red Wings:
Tampa Bay has had two dominant squads
Stanley Cup champions since 2005-06 by end-of-playoffs Elo ratings
And that was also true of the 2020 Lightning … until last night.
It’s really hard to build a team like this in the current era. (Even if you do find a way to keep your best skater from counting against the cap during the regular season.)
terrence.doyle: It really is. And they’ve done a lot of it in the draft. They’ve drafted about as well as any team has in the post-lockout era. Stamkos, Kuch, Vasy, Point, Victor Hedman — so all five of their best players — all draft picks. And they’ve traded really well too. I’m mostly thinking about dealing Jonathan Drouin for Mikhail Sergachev.
So maybe you shuffle some money around here and there in the form of long term IR. 🤷♂️ Who among us …
neil: So true. Well, as we look back on the season, I just wanted to say thanks to you both for chatting about hockey this season — it’s been a blast to follow the ups and downs with you, even if the team that had the best preseason odds in our model just ended up winning in the end.
terrence.doyle: It’s been my pleasure. And I’m sorry to all of the non-Bruins fans I’ve pissed off along the way. Can’t wait to do it again next season.
emily: It’s been fun! Looking forward to a bit more of a regular regular season later this year.
neil: And then 282 days later, another Lightning Cup win. (I assume that’s how this works)
emily: Our new normal.