Not sure if you’ve ever experienced Tampa Bay in early June. It’s not pleasant. The rare times you do venture outside, it’s so hot and humid it leaves you feeling gross and swampy and fat. All right, perhaps that’s just me. Fortunately, I have nine months to work on my body-image issues before having to endure it again.
That’s because, and you can book this one, the Tampa Bay Lightning will advance to the Stanley Cup final in 2020 and they will win it. And when they are parading around the ice with the Cup on a sultry night in June, they’ll be able to point directly back at the spirit-killing gut-punch they endured at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 playoffs as a main reason they’re celebrating.
It happens sometimes in hockey, the way it did last spring with the worst-to-first St. Louis Blues, but teams rarely sneak up on a Stanley Cup title. Those that do are often one-and-done, never to be heard from again.
Winning a championship is almost never a linear path. There are always a lot of bumps in the road, a couple of stops and starts and a healthy amount of disappointment. So if you subscribe to the theory that most teams have to go through the process of enduring profound disappointment and even wildly underachieving, the Lightning are primed to put it all together this season.
Consider the evidence. Before the New York Islanders went on their run of four Stanley Cups beginning in 1980, they were playoff failures. Two years prior to their first championship, they were shocked by the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the quarterfinal. The next year, they finished first overall in the NHL, one point ahead of the Montreal Canadiens, only to lose in the semifinal to a New York Rangers team that had finished 25 points behind them in the standings.
The Edmonton Oilers, before their run of Cups, were swept in the 1983 final by the Islanders. The year before winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, the Boston Bruins became just the third team in NHL history to blow a 3-0 series lead when they lost in seven to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round, a setback exacerbated by the fact that they also blew a 3-0 lead in Game 7.
The Detroit Red Wings were among the most prominent playoff underachievers in NHL history before they started winning Cups in the 1990s. The Washington Capitals? Well, let’s just say the second round was their biggest enemy before they finally put it all together.
Of course, we can’t ignore the ample evidence that suggests the Lightning are indeed a team that cannot get it done when it matters most. Look at their lineage over the past five seasons: lost Stanley Cup final, lost Eastern Conference final, missed the playoffs, lost Eastern Conference final, lost in the first round. On the plus side, only the Pittsburgh Penguins, with 70, have played more playoff games in that span than the Lightning, who have participated in 64.
On the minus side, unlike the Penguins, the Lightning have nothing to show for it, largely because they have displayed an uncanny ability to choke in series where the opponent is not as good. Of their four playoff losses in the past five seasons, three of them have been against teams that finished lower than they did in the standings, with the total number of points the Lightning had over those teams at plus-37.
Of course, much of that number has to do with the disaster of 2018-19 when the Lightning made a mockery of the regular season before becoming road kill in of the first round of the playoffs, prompting comedian Kenan Thompson to observe at the NHL Awards: “Shout-out to my Tampa folks. That’s right, they tied the most wins in a regular season with 62 and they followed that up by tying the least wins in the playoffs with zero. That’s what I like about them. Win or lose, they set records.” None of the Lightning players in attendance found a whole lot of humor in that one. In reality, the Lightning lost that series against Columbus in the first game, when they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period, only to squander it and lose 4-3. They spent the rest of the series hopelessly chasing the Blue Jackets en route to being outscored 15-5.
It was, by all accounts, an embarrassment, for everyone from owner Jeff Vinik to coach Jon Cooper to the fourth-liners. So how did the Lightning respond? Well, by not changing a thing. They wisely re-upped Cooper, one of the league’s best bench bosses, for three more years, replaced defenseman Anton Stralman with Kevin Shattenkirk on a bargain $1.75-million pact, shed themselves of Ryan Callahan’s $5.8-million cap hit and J.T. Miller’s $5.25-million (and got a first-round pick in return!) and picked up veteran Curtis McElhinney as their new backup goalie.
If there is one common thread among championship teams it’s that they stay loyal to their core players, build around them and display patience when things get difficult. The Lightning have done that. They’ve been too well run, too consistently good and too stable not to be rewarded with a Stanley Cup at some point. And we’re betting that point will be the 2019-20 season.