With the world slowly returning to normal and the possibility that the NHL will be able to complete the season, it's time to look at the teams that are favored to win the Stanley Cup. From now until either the season is cancelled or the playoffs begin, I'll highlight one team per week and make the case for them to win the Stanley Cup. This week: The Tampa Bay Lightning.
The reality is when you really think about it, it’s hard to come up with even one team that’s good enough to win the Stanley Cup this season. They all have their flaws and every one of them has taken a turn going from world-beater to full-blown tire fire. The 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings, who will go down as the worst team of the salary cap era and one of the worst in franchise history, has beaten the Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers and Tampa Bay Lightning this season.
If you had the choice of one team or the field to win the Cup this year, the smart money would pick the field every single time, regardless of the team. But another reality is that unless the COVID-19 virus wipes out the playoffs, somebody has to win this thing. So what better team than the Lightning, who have amazed, confounded and annoyed since the puck first dropped in October? To acknowledge that things did not end well the last time the Lightning were the prohibitive favorite to win the Cup would be tantamount to saying that Euro Disney hasn’t quite lived up to the North American version. You might remember the Lightning crashing and burning, since it happened just last spring.
As much as the Lightning might make you want to bang your head against the wall, they’re going to win the Stanley Cup in 2020 maybe probably. Why? Because they’re too good not to, that’s why. Slowly and deliberately, the Lightning have supplemented the best goalie, one of the league’s top defensemen and the best and deepest forward corps in the NHL with some bite and snarl. They’re not chasing history this season. And history has told us that there are a good number of teams that raised the Stanley Cup only after they received a soul-crushing gut punch to the solar plexus at least once (see Capitals, Washington).
“Well, I hope that’s true,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I’ve been in the league seven years and we made the Stanley Cup final in my second year (2015) and we’ve been close since, but probably nothing like what happened to us last year. It really, really hurts when you go through it, but when you do go through it, you learn how much it hurts and you try to alter your behavior so that doesn’t happen again.”
Veteran defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk wasn’t part of this group last season and was probably just as shocked as everyone else to see the Lightning follow up the Presidents’ Trophy by being crushed in four straight in the first round. Armed with an outsider’s perspective and from what his teammates have told him, a big part of the reason why the Lightning lost last season was they had experienced no adversity from the first drop of the puck last season until the playoffs began, so they were poorly equipped to deal with it when it came, and it came early. On the first night of the first round of the playoffs, the Lightning skated off the ice with a 3-0 lead. It was the only lead they would hold against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and in the next 11 periods they would be outscored 18-5.
“Sixty-two wins is an impressive feat, but they said they won games they shouldn’t have,” Shattenkirk said. “I think this year we went through some challenges early on. I think once we got over the fact we are a different team and it’s a different season – we aren’t going to win 62 games this year, we were able to settle in and play our game. I think the journey of kind of working through some tough times this year and tough stretches, and finding our game at the end of it, is going to be good for us in the long run.”
This season, though, the Lightning stumbled right out of the gate and couldn’t put together a three-game winning streak until a month into the season. The bumbling continued and not only were they well outside the playoff picture on the demarcation point of U.S. Thanksgiving, they were still out a month later when the league took its Christmas break. Only when they began making up the games in hand deficit they’d built up with the trip to Europe and won the sixth of what would be a 10-game winning streak did the Lightning finally get back into the playoff group. And that was Jan. 4.
So if you’re looking for positives, that’s one box checked. The only problem is, that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? These are the best athletes in the world and every one of them, from superstar to fourth-liner, is there because he has overcome some of the most insurmountable odds to be in the league. It’s pretty tough to think that two bad periods of hockey could crumble the psyche of a team so badly that it would mail in the rest of the series.
From the time the playoffs started this season until they got back into the playoff picture, the Lightning’s record was a rather pedestrian 22-17-4. In the 30 games after that, they went 21-6-3. So if there was adversity early in the season, it’s fair to say the Lightning overcame it. But if the Lightning are going to glean any lessons, the playoff defeat is still fresh enough in their minds. They received all the hard times they ever needed before the puck was dropped for Game 1 of 2019-20.
“To be honest, the adversity happened for us in April,” Cooper said. “I’m sure (once the playoffs start) they’ll come up again. That was the process of our adversity. What I’ve liked about our group is I think we’ve grown up as a team. We’ve gone to maybe teenage kids to young adults in a way. There’s a lot more responsibility in our game.”
Even though the Stanley Cup weighs just slightly less than 35 pounds, it takes a lot of heavy lifting to get there and the Lightning have added the muscle they think they need to get it done. It started in the off-season when they signed Patrick Maroon to a one-year deal after he won the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues and continued at the trade deadline when they gave up the first-round pick they received when they dealt J.T. Miller to Vancouver and got Barclay Goodrow from the San Jose Sharks. And in early March, when they got into a game of skatey-punchy with the Boston Bruins, they were ready and stood up to the challenge. They also beat the Bruins in that game and convinced more than a few observers that they will indeed be a force to be reckoned with when the playoffs start.
The Lightning have had win streaks of 10 and 11 games this season, which means they’re fairly capable of getting on some kind of roll when they want to. But those streaks also make it difficult to grasp how they can play so poorly and can be so defensively porous at times. They give up a lot of 10-bell chances and have to lean on their goalie, but who doesn’t? In a league where every team has warts, the Lightning’s complexion is looking pretty good at the moment. Do the Bruins have a second straight playoff run in them? Can the Washington Capitals get out of their own way? Can anyone make any sense of any team in the Western Conference?
The Lightning came into Toronto in the last game before the league paused and faced a team that had just come off a California disaster in which it had lost all three games and scored a total of two goals. Without Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in the lineup, the Lightning responded by being outshot 17-6 in the first period, which basically left them chasing the game for the rest of the night. That left the Lightning with a 3-6-1 record to follow up an 11-game winning streak. When asked what was missing at the start of the game, Cooper gave a one-word answer. “Effort,” he said. He went on to say the Lightning effort was “embarrassing” in the first period of that game. But Cooper also said his team has the wherewithal to be great. “There have been games and periods that I’ve watched this group be exceptional,” he said, “so I know we have it in us.”
The Lightning are one of those few teams in the NHL for whom not winning the Stanley Cup will be considered a complete failure. It was that way in Washington for a long time and just when much of the hockey world thought they would never do it, they finally put it together in 2018. After they won, coach Barry Trotz said the Capitals decided they had finally had enough of the second-guessing and the doubters. It took time. The Lightning will enter this year’s playoffs with no shortage of doubters that they have what it takes to win. They’ll have two months to turn them into believers, which will make it all the more satisfying when they do.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and opinions delivered right to your mailbox? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.