Entering the Stanley Cup Semifinals, one team has emerged as the (clear, ish) favorite to win the Stanley Cup: the Tampa Bay Lightning. After enduring a tough first-round battle against the Florida Panthers, a series the Bolts might actually have been lucky to win,1 Tampa Bay made quick work of the Carolina Hurricanes in round two, wrapping things up in just five games.
Next up for the Bolts: the scrappy, never say die New York Islanders. Going into the semis, FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based simulations give them a 62 percent chance of advancing to the final and a 34 percent chance of winning the whole thing. If Tampa manages to win the Cup for a second year in a row, it will become just the second franchise to do so since the lockout of 2004-05, and just the third — along with the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins — since 1990.2
So, how has Tampa Bay managed to advance to the final four and position itself as the most likely team to lift Lord Stanley’s shiny soup bowl in July? For starters, it didn’t hurt that they got back healthy versions of Steven Stamkos (who missed 18 regular-season games) and Nikita Kucherov (who missed the entire regular season) just in time for the playoffs.
In Tampa Bay’s history, the duo is first and fifth respectively in point shares; first and fourth in goals; first and fourth in power-play goals; third and sixth in assists; third and fourth in points; and first and second in goals created per game. Each player ranks in the top five of a number of other categories, but you get the point: These guys are pretty good at hockey.
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The Bolts were already very good before the returns of Stamkos and Kucherov — they finished the regular season with the third-best Elo in the league, behind the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche — but certain elements of their game were lacking, if just a little, during the regular season in the absence of the two legends.
For starters, Tampa Bay struggled to create top-notch scoring chances at an elite rate while playing at 5-on-5 — according to Natural Stat Trick, it ranked 11th in high-danger scoring chance percentage,3 generating just 53 percent of the high-danger chances that occurred in the games in which it played. Not terrible, but not the Colorado Avalanche, either. Tampa’s power play was in the same boat: During the regular season, it was the league’s ninth-best man advantage — far from the upper echelon of teams. But then again, operating for an entire season without one of the sport’s most valuable players and for a third of the season without one of its best-ever shooters will have that effect on a power play.
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Having former (and very likely future) Vezina Trophy-winning Andrei Vasilevskiy in net helped mitigate the Bolts’ barely-better-than-average high-quality chance percentage — he and netminding partners Curtis McElhinney and Christopher Gibson combined for the second-best save percentage on high-danger shots in 5-on-5 play during the regular season — and having one of the league’s best penalty kill rates helped ensure that they came out on top more often than not on special teams.
Flash-forward to the playoffs, and Tampa Bay has vastly improved upon its 5-on-5 high-danger chance percentage. It ranks fourth among all playoff teams and second among those that have played at least 10 games, according to Natural Stat Trick. And its power play has been by far the best in the playoffs — Tampa Bay is scoring on a gaudy 41.7 percent of its man advantages, almost double its regular-season rate. It’s no surprise then that Stamkos and Kucherov have combined for 21 power-play points so far this postseason.
There’s been some consternation as to whether a team should be able to activate a player who spent the entire regular season on long-term injured reserve — and therefore didn’t count against its salary cap — as Tampa Bay did with Kucherov for the playoffs. Some think the Bolts bent the rules, and others think they outright cheated. But the rules that allowed for Tampa Bay to do what it did are the rules, and the return of Kucherov — who was the league’s most valuable player in goals above replacement (GAR) from 2017-18 to 2019-20 — has galvanized the Bolts, and they appear set to make a run at a repeat.
More than two years have passed since Tampa Bay collapsed against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2018-19 Stanley Cup playoffs. The disappointment was palpable at the time and probably remained even after they eventually exorcised their demons en route to a Cup lift last September: What could (and probably should) have been an historic repeat was merely a stand-alone. Alas, it wasn’t to be — and no matter, because Tampa Bay has a chance to rewrite the narrative this summer.