The scene in Tampa after one relatively meaningless game in late March last season was…tense.
The Bolts had long lapped the field to lock up the Presidents’ Trophy and were on their way to tying an NHL record with 62 victories. Yet the Washington Capitals, the defending Stanley Cup champs at the time, had come to town and cleaned Tampa’s clock, winning 6-3, also winning the battle in the trenches, with Tom Wilson besting Erik Cernak in a fight.
After the game, fielding questions, coach Jon Cooper was uncharacteristically terse. It was as if a bigger, stronger, more experienced team had come to town with just a week left in the season and read aloud the book on how to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning. Within a few weeks, the Bolts had choked in spectacular fashion, getting swept by the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1 of the playoffs.
Before that series, as we broke down every post-season matchup on The Hockey News Podcast, the only possible soft spot in the Lightning, which we’d really just floated as part of a devil’s-advocate exercise, was the intangible idea Tampa was too good, too early in the 2018-19 season. It had dominated the standings so thoroughly that it didn’t have to play meaningful hockey for the final few months of the season, and it entered the playoffs far from battle-tested.
The fate was reminiscent of the Washington Capitals in 2015-16 and 2016-17. They won the Presidents’ Trophy both seasons, by margins of 11 and seven points, respectively, and flopped in second-round losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins both times. In subsequent interviews with The Hockey News the following season, some Caps players looked back and wondered if being too far ahead of the standings made the team soft mentally heading into the playoffs.
We all remember what happened in 2017-18, of course. The Caps were still an excellent team but finished with the NHL’s sixth-best record. They didn’t kill themselves chasing a Presidents’ Trophy. They also spent a significant portion of the season coming from behind in the standings. After 22 games, they were just 11-10-1, grinding it out on the post-season bubble. They went 38-16-6 the rest of the way, including 12-3-0 over their final 15 games, and won the Metropolitan Division. They appeared to peak at the right time.
And it seems the Caps aren’t the only recent Stanley Cup champ who happened to play its best hockey in the latter part of the regular season. The worst-to-first St. Louis Blues of 2018-19 will likely go down as the greatest example of it in NHL history. But the 2011-12 Kings won the Cup after firing coach Terry Murray for Darryl Sutter before mid-season. The 2015-16 Penguins were out of a playoff spot in December when they axed Mike Johnston for Mike Sullivan.
All these teams entered the post-season having played nothing but important, meaningful games down the stretch. Now, let’s turn our attention to the 2019-20 Tampa Bay Lightning. They’ve stuck with coach Jon Cooper, so they aren’t a relevant case study because of a coaching change, but they are relevant because they seem to be following the trend of peaking when it matters.
As recently as Dec. 5, the Lightning had as many losses as victories, sitting 13-10-3. At the 26-game mark the previous season, they were 18-7-1. From Game 27 until today, the Lightning are 21-5-2. Over that stretch, they lead the NHL in wins and 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes, and they’re second in goals-against per 60 minutes. We’re seeing many of Tampa’s best players surge individually, too. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is 11-0-1 with a .945 save percentage since the start of January. Right winger Nikita Kucherov has 12 goals and 24 points in 16 games since Jan. 1. Center Steven Stamkos’ line over the same hot streak is 11-11-22. Center Anthony Cirelli continues to build his case as a Selke Trophy contender.
During this two-month hot streak, Tampa also ranks top-10 in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts for and against per 60, 5-on-5 scoring chances for and against per 60, 5-on-5 high-danger shot attempts for and against per 60, power-play scoring rate and penalty-killing scoring rate against. This team looks dominant from every angle right now. It appears, then, the Bolts are slowly morphing back into the juggernaut team they were last season but, because they’re doing their damage later and still haven’t caught Boston for first in the Atlantic Division, the games will mean more this winter than last. The Bolts, theoretically, should be far more battle tested by the time the 2019-20 playoffs arrive. That makes them about as strong a bet to win it all as any team this spring.
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com