Less than a week ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were heavy betting favorites to win the Stanley Cup, and for good reason. The Bolts entered the playoffs on the heels of one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. They tied the record for the most regular-season wins1 and finished with the fourth-highest point total in league history. Forward Nikita Kucherov scored 128 points and will almost surely win the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, and Steven Stamkos had the best season of his already illustrious career.
As a team, the Bolts were unparalleled — they paced the league in goals scored, power-play goals scored, shooting percentage and penalty kill percentage. If the team that Steve Yzerman built was ever going to acquire some silverware, this would surely be the year.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, their astonishing regular-season form hasn’t carried over to the postseason, and now they find themselves on the precipice of an unprecedented failure: If they lose Tuesday night in Columbus, they’ll be the first Presidents’ Trophy winners to be swept out of the first round of the postseason in history. Even if they aren’t swept but merely lose the series, Tampa’s collapse would be monumental — devastating for any team but especially so for a club that’s been knocking on the door of Stanley Cup glory for several years. How have things gone so wrong for the team from the Gulf Coast?
For starters, Tampa’s high-scoring superstars seem to have forgotten what the net looks like. Stamkos hasn’t recorded a point, neither has Brayden Point, and the only thing Kucherov has recorded is a one-game suspension for an extraordinarily dirty hit on Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara. Meanwhile, the opposite is true for the Jackets: Matt Duchene and Artemi Panarin — subjects of a major trade and a major nontrade, respectively — are scoring at will, while Zach Werenski is providing service from the blue line.
Things aren’t much different between the pipes. Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has been uncharacteristically abysmal: He has stopped just 86.6 percent of the shots he’s faced so far, which ranks second to last in the postseason among qualifying goalies. This is somewhat stunning, especially given the Russian’s previous postseason form: In 29 postseason appearances between 2014 and 2018, he stopped 91.9 percent of the shots he faced. This spring’s regression couldn’t have come at a worst time.
On the other side of the ice, Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been nearly unbeatable, stopping 94 percent of the shots he’s faced — which is good for second-best. None of this bodes well for the Bolts because save percentage is the single most important determinant of a team’s goals-per-game differential in the postseason, and therefore the key to a playoff run.
As if circumstances could get any worse, Tampa is unraveling against a team that has never won a playoff series. In fact, Columbus had never won more than two games in a single postseason before this one. It’s one thing to be swept by a franchise that has won four Stanley Cups, as may happen to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the hands of the New York Islanders; it’s an entirely different thing to get bounced by a franchise that’s never advanced to the second round.
We wrote last week that anything short of lifting the Stanley Cup in June would feel like a failure for the Bolts and would put them in the same company as the 1995-96 Red Wings, another set of historically great losers. But if the Bolts are dispatched in four games, their failure would have to be considered more embarrassing. After all, that Red Wings team advanced to the conference finals before crashing out of the postseason. This Bolts team might not even win a game.
Only four teams have managed to overcome a 3-0 series deficit in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs. If any team is up to the task, it’s this immensely talented Bolts group. But first, they’ll have to remember how to put the puck into the net of their opponent. Otherwise, they will make history for all the wrong reasons.