A year after an epic unraveling, the Tampa Bay Lightning have completed their redemption arc. The Bolts hoisted their second ever Stanley Cup on Monday night after dispatching the Dallas Stars 2-0, bringing to an end a hard-fought but ultimately comfortable series after six games.
In doing so, Tampa exorcised any demons that may have invaded the soul of the franchise last spring when it was swept in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by a dogged but less accomplished Columbus Blue Jackets team. That iteration of the Lightning — the one that finished the regular season with 62 wins and 128 points — entered the playoffs as the overwhelming favorite but was unable to get the job done. This iteration entered the playoffs as the betting favorite too, but instead of folding under the weight of their own greatness, the Lightning did exactly what was expected of them: They won the Stanley Cup.
To be sure, the Bolts weren’t as good during the 2019-20 regular season as they were in 2018-19. They won a smaller share of their games and finished with an inferior points percentage; their power play was less devastating; their penalty kill was less effective; they got worse goaltending in terms of save percentage, which accounts for a higher proportion of a team’s success than any other factor; and they were less impressive according to HockeyReference.com’s Simple Rating System. But the bookmakers still liked their odds to lift Lord Stanley’s shiny soup bowl more than any other team, including the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins.
The bookmakers were right in the end. Excluding their round robin games, the Lightning lost just four games en route to the Stanley Cup Final. They swatted aside the Jackets, their bugbear from a season ago, and the Bruins — the team that appeared most equipped to give them trouble in the East — like so many mosquitos, needing just five games to beat each of them. The New York Islanders provided more of a challenge in the Eastern Conference finals — after an 8-2 Game 1 loss, the Isles found their game and forced the Bolts to overtime in Games 5 and 6 — but Tampa’s depth and class proved too much in the end. For the first time since losing to Chicago in 2015, and after failing in two conference finals in the interim, the Bolts were headed back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Once it got there, Tampa was dominant. Though the Stars made things difficult, winning Games 1 and 5, the outcome hardly ever felt in the balance. Before the finals, the Bolts struggled on special teams, especially with the man advantage. But Tampa turned its special teams play around against Dallas. In the first three rounds of the playoffs (including the round robin), the Lightning scored on just 17.9 percent of their power play opportunities, a shocking rate for a team that ranked fifth in the league (23.1 percent) during the regular season. But against the Stars, Tampa scored on an astonishing 36.8 percent of its power play opportunities. Indeed, seven of Tampa’s 18 goals during the series came on the power play. The Bolts were able to take a playoff weakness — which had been a strength during the regular season — and turn in into a silver bullet during the finals.
Tampa’s exceptional power play performance was fueled by veteran defenseman Victor Hedman, who scored once with the man advantage and added four assists. The Swede’s magnificent overall play from the blueline during the Cup run put him in the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation, but his influence on the power play during the finals sealed the deal. Silky centerman Brayden Point’s three power play goals — and five goals total — and Nikita Kucherov’s five power play assists didn’t hurt Tampa’s chances either.
The Tampa Bay Lighting have been extremely good for the better part of a decade. Since the 2013-14 season, the Bolts have finished the regular season in first or second place in their division on six occasions. They’ve earned 100 or more points four times, and they’ve reached at least the conference finals four times too. But until Monday, they had underachieved. None of that matters anymore, though. The Lightning have lifted their second Stanley Cup — and buried their historic collapse from a year ago in the past.