Inside the NHL's Canadian-based secure zones last summer, the Tampa Bay Lightning were an indomitable force. Sure, there were tenuous moments — especially early while scratching a very specific itch in the form of the Columbus Blue Jackets — but in the end it was one of the cleanest paths travelled toward a Stanley Cup triumph in many seasons. They lost just six times — once to the Blue Jackets and Bruins in each of the first two rounds, and twice apiece in final two series versus the Islanders and Stars.
Not once did it seem in doubt for the Lightning last summer. It was, finally and as expected: a richly deserved championship moment.
This season, the conversation around the Lightning was different. Forced to take drastic measures to keep the team together in the hard and flat cap world, deliberating and compromising actions — which included timing an offseason surgery exactly so that the club's highest-paid skater, Nikita Kucherov, would miss the balance of the regular season, and nothing more — became essential. Not quite the same team even with the championship framework still in tact, the club suffered its worst regular-season finish in four years, finishing third-best in the Central Division and pacing behind the Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers.
Facing a daunting road through those two upstart programs eager to take the next step, in addition to managing uncertainties around some of the most important players on the roster, it seemed as though it might be another team's turn.
Instead, it has very much remained the Lightning's.
What Tampa Bay failed to do through the course of a 56-game schedule was accomplished convincingly over 11 postseason games. After defeating Florida in six, Tampa took back its position on top of any and every heap, beating the Hurricanes in Raleigh on a third successive occasion to wrap up the series in five and advance to the NHL's one-time-only, non-conference semifinal round.
Tampa's results so far aren't as much surprising as they are instructive. As in, this should serve as a reminder not to rush to brush aside proven quantities simply for not demonstrating the same level of standard in times when it's not required.
Everything we have learned to appreciate or at least respect about the Lightning has hit us over the head in these playoffs. They still have unmatched goaltending with Andrei Vasilevskiy. They still have the league's most lethal power play with Kucherov back in the mix. They still have players that command the action at an unparalleled level like Victor Hedman and Brayden Point. They still have that inherent level of nasty and the postseason know-how that just seems to provide an edge more times than not.
Both the Panthers and Hurricanes showed facets that momentarily, or at least theoretically, could show the Lightning problems. But the Bolts remain the NHL's most elite and most efficient problem solvers, in both matchups quickly identifying the advantages that would win them the series.
Looking ahead, the Lightning will be favoured — perhaps to a greater degree than at any point so far in the playoffs — in a third-round series over either the Islanders or Bruins, or two teams they beat on the path to the Stanley Cup last season.
But before we get too far down the road, is it worth asking one more time if there are any reasons to doubt the Lightning?
At the risk of repeating the same mistakes, it can be noted that their path through two rounds hasn't been as clean as it was last season. It has taken one extra game, but more importantly the underlying data isn't what it was at this point in the bubble. In fact, without their wrecking ball power play it's possible that Tampa Bay wouldn't be in the position it's in. Florida managed to out-score the Lightning at even strength, while the Hurricanes nearly broke even on the scoreboard while registering more shots and more attempts through the five-game series.
Logically, though, in neither case can you make a sound argument that the Lightning didn't deserve to go through. And to be completely fair, assessing the Lightning without their power play is like asking the question of where the Montreal Canadiens would be without Carey Price.
It's what makes the Lightning the Lightning.
That said, it had been more than PP prowess inside the bubbles last summer. At the same point as the Lightning are at now, after defeating the Blue Jackets and Bruins in Rounds 1 and 2, the Bolts held a 27-13 edge in 5-on-5 scoring and had all the underlying data to support a level of dominance that would continue into the next round.
This postseason, the Lightning have a 19-16 scoring advantage at 5-on-5, rank 11th out of 16 teams in shot and attempt share, and have a 48.75 percent expected goals percentage under the same condition, or the lowest mark among remaining teams.
In order to complete the context puzzle, though, we have to acknowledge a few things.
One, no team has spent more time playing with a lead, which would certainly contribute to some of the lacklustre data. Two, Tampa has struck 15 times on the power play already, which is considerably more than any other team and contributes to the diminishing need to attack in five-on-five scenarios, of course.
But maybe more important than anything, the Lightning have just overcome two really good teams — ones better than encountered last summer. Aside from the Vegas Golden Knights, no team has had a tougher road to this point, as the Lightning have knocked off two of the top four teams by record in the NHL this season to reach the final four.
There were reasons to suggest the Lightning didn't have it in them again. Hedman was hurt. Kucherov was cold, entering the highest level of competition after missing the entire regular season. Kevin Shattenkirk, Carter Verhaeghe, Zach Bogosian and Cedric Paquette were lost as cap casualties. It's hard to repeat, especially when it hasn't been that long since the last time, and even with a healthy Steven Stamkos this time around.
But with everyone contributing at a high level, from Tyler Johnson and Pat Maroon on the fourth line and on up to the top of the food chain with Vasilevskiy, Hedman, Kucherov and Point, the Lightning appear fully capable of defying that knee-jerk assumption and repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
From returning just as deep and powerful to fitting almost $99 million worth of assets under an $82.5 million salary cap, it's always been possible with the Lightning.
And it's no different.
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