Dimitri Filipovic writes about the NHL and other hockey leagues. He lives in British Columbia.
Like the rest of us, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau was in awe of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has already clinched a playoff spot and continues to threaten the NHL’s all-time record for most points by a team in an 82-game season, with 108 in 69 games.
The Lightning are a juggernaut. Vegas Insider has set their odds to win the Stanley Cup at 5-2, with no other team better than 9-1. Some see their quest for the championship as an inevitability. That’s how dominant they’ve been.
“They’re really talented. They don’t have a weakness. They put the fear of God in you,” said Boudreau.
It turns out that, on occasion, the seemingly supernatural Lightning can look mortal. Boudreau’s team shut them out with a 3-0 win, becoming only the second team this season to blank Tampa Bay.
Even the mightiest can fall, and the Lightning are no different. Here are five ways the Lightning can fall short of the championship; please note that “catastrophic injuries” are not one of them, but obviously losing star winger Nikita Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman, center Steven Stamkos or especially goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy could be devastating.
Earlier this season, Lightning coach Jon Cooper acknowledged that one of his goals for 2018-19 was to get his team playing the kind of defense that wins championships. “We have to win games 2-1, and not 5-4,” he said.
Maybe he’s just being a realist, because the Lightning are anything but that 5-4 team in their most critical playoff games. In fact, in Games 6 and 7 of their past two Eastern Conference finals losses, the Lightning scored a total of three goals: They scored two in Game 6 and one in Game 7 before being eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, then were shut out in back-to-back games by the Washington Capitals in 2018.
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On pace to challenge the all-time standings point mark, Tampa Bay has been dominant this season. But just how dominant?
“Our offense has failed us, not our defense. We lost 4-0 to Washington [in Game 7], but if you watch that game, there’s an argument that we should have been up 4-0. We lost to Pittsburgh, 2-1,” said Cooper. “I think it’s something where you have to train your team for 82 games, that you can’t just turn it on in the playoffs.”
Look no further than the performances of the Lightning’s top scorers in those games. In 2016, Kucherov had 11 goals, eight assists and 51 shots on goal in 15 playoff games; then he went scoreless in Games 6 and 7 against the Penguins, generating three shots in those games. In 2018, Kucherov had seven goals and 10 assists in 15 games with 61 shots on goal. He had one shot in Game 6 and three in Game 7, but failed to register a point. In those four critical games, Kucherov was a minus-7.
Stamkos was injured in 2016, playing only Game 7 against the Penguins and for just over 11 minutes. He had two shots, a minus-1 and no points. In Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, he was a minus-2 with four shots and no points.
In each of their past two postseason appearances under Cooper, the Lightning have rolled through the first two rounds, winning each of the four series in five games. Both years, they fell in the conference finals in Game 7. The reason is simple: When the postseason’s on the line, they can’t quite do what they do best.
If you’re foolish enough to stand in the center of the ring and trade haymakers with the Lightning, you’re eventually going to get knocked out. They simply pack too much power behind their punches for you to play their game and expect to make it out in one piece.
The good news for any prospective opponents is that while they surely won’t be able to match Tampa Bay’s talent level, sometimes a playoff series can be just as much about the way the two teams match up stylistically as it is about anything else. Against a team that’s as prolific offensively as the Lightning, an opponent almost has to go to the complete opposite extreme. It needs to slow the game down to a virtual gridlock, limit the amount of possessions that are traded back and forth, and minimize the number of opportunities Tampa Bay gets in the attacking zone.
We saw the Capitals put on a master class on how that’s done last spring, when they ran the gauntlet against the Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights en route to the Stanley Cup. They managed to trip up some of the league’s quickest attacking teams by grinding the game down to a halt in the neutral zone with their vaunted 1-1-3 trap, limiting the opposition’s ability to carry the puck into and out of the zone with any real semblance of time and space. As those teams all came to quickly appreciate, it’s awfully difficult to get going offensively when you’re constantly having to stop and start whenever you get the puck.
To get a better sense of who typically plays fast versus more methodically, we’re going to use combined rates of shots generated for and against as a proxy for “pace.” While it’s not necessarily a flawless measure, it at the very least gives us a better general sense of how often events are transpiring when specific teams are involved. Here’s how quickly the rest of the teams in the playoff picture are playing this season at even strength via Natural Stat Trick:
Most of the teams we’d typically consider to be Tampa Bay’s biggest challengers are stacked up together near the top of the list here. A team like the Maple Leafs can afford to coast through the regular season by playing fast and loose because they have the horses to outscore most opponents. But the Lightning aren’t your typical team, and if the Leafs were to get into a seven-game series against them, continuing to play that brand of up-tempo hockey would be playing with fire.
It may not matter, because the talent gap between the two sides is too significant for even the greatest of coaches to overcome, but one thing we know about Barry Trotz is that he has the unparalleled ability to strategically suck the life out of the game with his defensive system.
His impact on the Islanders in his first season with the team is already abundantly obvious: He has taken a club that played at the seventh-fastest pace last season and brought them all the way down to 31st. It’s also no coincidence that the Capitals have jumped up from 22nd to seventh in that same period of time since his departure. It’d be fascinating to see what kind of game plan he could concoct with this current group of players to try to once again slow down a superior team.
If there’s an offensive category, the Lightning are probably leading the pack in it this season. They’re currently on pace to score north of 300 goals, which has been accomplished only three times (the 2009-10 Capitals, 2005-06 Senators and 2005-06 Red Wings) over the past two decades. Kucherov is on pace to put up 130 points, a feat that hasn’t been reached since the heyday of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, when they were terrorizing the league together in the mid-’90s.
For as lethal as they are at five-on-five, the Lightning ascend to their most terrifying offensive heights on the power play, when they get to load up with the full scope of their embarrassment of riches. Their top unit has given opposing penalty kills nightmares, proving to be a truly unanswerable problem. Because of the way they set up, they essentially wind up forcing you to pick your poison.
With Kucherov serving as a dual threat architect from the half wall, he gets to survey the landscape and direct the puck toward whatever the defense gives him. He’s perfectly suited for the role because he’s got an excellent shot himself, which forces penalty killers to remain honest and play him straight up. From there his options are: (A) Brayden Point, who leads the league in power-play goals with 19; (B) Steven Stamkos, who is second in power-play goals this season (16) and is arguably the greatest one-shot sniper of his generation; or (C) Victor Hedman, who serves as an absolute hammer from the point. It should come as no surprise that Kucherov is lapping the field in power-play production, and at 28.6 percent, the Lightning have the most efficient power-play conversion rate in 36 years.
Regardless of how teams try to stop them, they have to live with the fact that they’ll eventually find a way to score. All that can really be done is to make life difficult for them. The issue is that this involves walking the finest of tightropes while doing so; limiting their space and opportunities, while avoiding penalties.
That’s obviously easier said than done. Their top scorers are so dangerous with the puck that they force defenders into compromised positions in which they have to pick between taking a penalty or conceding a goal. Even the players residing lower on the depth chart put you in a bind, with the speed of guys like Mathieu Joseph, Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde being difficult to contain.
Even though there’s a conventional belief that referees put their whistles away in the playoffs as the level of physicality heightens, the rate of penalties called is actually relatively in line with what we see throughout the regular season. Any team that hopes to beat the Lightning come the postseason will have to navigate that balancing act delicately and play a disciplined game. The Tampa Bay power play is such a problem that the only palatable solution for defending it is to not give it a chance in the first place.
The notion of the “hot goalie” in the playoffs is one that has been up for debate, from whether they exist to whether a run of postseason success has any bearing on whether we’re watching what amounts to a “good” goalie.
Ken Dryden, a guy who knows a thing or two about torrid postseason goaltending, always believed that a “hot goalie” is actually one who has the benefit of playing behind a recommitted defense. “When playoff energy returns, defense returns. Shooters get harassed and forced to bad angles; rebounds are cleared. Great chances become good chances that good goalies can stop,” he wrote. “Every goal not scored seems bigger. Every save made seems better. It’s a goalie’s time of year.”
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That said … we’ve all seen this happen, haven’t we? Those postseason series when a seemingly inferior opponent pulls an upset against a behemoth because of impenetrable goaltending. When Jean-Sebastien Giguere elevated the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to the 2003 Stanley Cup Final and earned himself the Conn Smythe. When Jonathan Quick posted one game out of 20 with a save percentage below .900 in backstopping a No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings to the Cup in 2012.
And of course, the go-to example for anyone who believes the lowest-seeded playoff team can take down the most intimidating conference leader: Jaroslav Halak‘s 2010 performance, during which he stopped 94 of 96 shots in Games 6 and 7 to lead Montreal to the 1-versus-8 upset of Washington. “Some people didn’t give us a chance to even win one game. They were wrong,” said Halak after that Game 7 win.
The hot goaltender is both the agent of chaos in the NHL postseason and the great equalizer. The Lightning could see Carey Price of Montreal, Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney of Carolina or Matt Murray (if healthy) of Pittsburgh. (They could also see Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus, assuming the heretofore postseason flop gets the nod come playoff time.)
Survive them, and they’ll have to contend with Frederik Andersen of Toronto or Tuukka Rask of Boston in the second round — both very capable of winning a series on their own in back of the two other best teams in the conference. (Thanks, NHL playoff system that’s completely inequitable to regular-season top seeds!)
No one can predict when the hot goalie will strike. Heck, he might even be a member of the Lightning this season. But it’s one of the reasons why Presidents’ Trophy winners have gone on to win the Stanley Cup only eight times, and have reached the Stanley Cup Final only 11 times. (Fun fact: The team with the best regular-season record, like the Capitals in 2010, have lost in the first round six times.)
As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense, and that certainly applies here. Kucherov is so skilled that the only way to ensure that he’s not a scoring threat is to keep him away from the puck and as far from the net as possible. Being a strong possession team goes a long way toward accomplishing that, because every second that he and the Lightning’s other top scorers are hemmed in their own zone and being forced to defend is a huge win for the opposition.
That theoretical idea lines up with what we’ve seen in practice over the years, where there’s been a strong link established between the teams that dominate puck possession in the later stages of the regular season and the success they have in the ensuing postseason. With that in mind, here’s how all of the teams in the playoff picture have performed from a shot share perspective over the past 25 games. Data is courtesy of Puck on Net:
It’s amazing that we’re once again headed toward a collision course between the Bruins and Leafs in Round 1, considering that they currently have the second- and fifth-best winning percentages, respectively.
If Boston is able to get by Toronto again, it could potentially present a challenging foe for the Lightning because of its unique combination of skills. The Bruins have the horses up front to match up head-to-head without conceding any ground, the goaltending that will allow them to steal a game or two, and the defensive structure to slow Tampa Bay down.
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Even without David Pastrnak in the lineup, they’ve been particularly dominant lately, going an astounding 15-0-4 over 19 games prior to Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Their place on the chart above isn’t especially surprising, given that their bread and butter is a suffocating possession game that looks like an older sibling tormenting younger siblings by playing keep-away with them.
The issue is that it’s hardly a given that they get their shot against Tampa Bay at all, because the Leafs are a great team in their own right. If the Bruins do beat Toronto, it’ll likely be another epic series that goes the full distance. The entire scenario is eerily reminiscent of last year. By the time the Bruins reached the Lightning in the 2018 playoffs, they were a shell of themselves after having had to completely empty the tank against Toronto. The speed discrepancy between the two teams at that point was like night and day.
To avoid the same result, Boston’s main priority over the closing weeks of the regular season should be to take a page out of the NBA’s playbook by carefully managing the workload of its top players. A fresh Bruins team would certainly give us a much better series than we got in 2018, when the Lightning dispatched them in five games.