If it weren’t for my Washington Capitals, my favorite hockey team to watch from a bipartisan point of view over this past decade has been the Tampa Bay Lightning. From the top down, this has been the most well run team in the NHL. If it wasn’t for the badly timed injuries and a few contracts going bad (good afternoon Ben Bishop, Jason Garrison and Valteri Filppula!), you could make a case that they would have had a Stanley Cup or two by now. Instead, general manager Steve Yzerman, head coach Jon Cooper, captain Steven Stamkos and many more have not been rewarded for their world class efforts.In fact, they were two games away from looking like a team of destiny back in 2015.
I genuinely worried that Tampa would not be able to make any of their efforts count this season, despite being the most analytically inclined team in the league, for two reasons. First, Andrei Vasilevskiy finished the season so poorly and, like Sergei Bobrovsky and many more before him, was given such a massive workload that he was going to struggle mightily in putting more weight on his shoulders by giving his team 16 wins in the postseason. Second, #TopLineGirardi and #FreeSergachev. I’ve seen it as a Caps fan with the senseless obligation almost every NHL head coach has of giving a much bigger role to his Brooks Orpik over his Nate Schmidt and I genuinely feared that the Lightning were going to go through the exact same fate.
They fortunately made easy work with New Jersey, but they were not the Boston Bruins that stood in the way of a third Conference Finals appearance in four years. This was a Bruins side that has been well coached (I know fellow Caps fans, it will always be shocking to say that about Bruce Cassidy) and has the scariest top line over the past two seasons in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. Along with that, their improved defense corps of Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, a new cult hero in Jake Debrusk, plus a much better version of Tuukka Rask gave the city of Boston hope that they would rise from the ashes of 2015 and 2016 and return to the Stanley Cup Finals. Add in the fact that the Bruins took three out of four of the regular season games between the two teams and you can see why this was going to be a difficult series for the Lightning.
Welp, not only did Tampa put an end to Boston’s hopes and dreams, but they did so with an ease few people expected. Things didn’t help that the Bruins would be without Brandon Carlo and Krug due to injury by season’s end, but you know you’re in a dark place if your top line are the only regular sets of players to be in the green for puck possession. Watching Matt Grzelcyk look like a 24-year old boy against men all series is surely going to be in Bruins’ fans nightmares for a while. Rick Nash and a much healthier David Krecji were able to contribute in some ways, but that was it among the forwards that contributed to multi-point totals in the series. Bruins fans do have a point to give Rask a ton of stick for having a poor postseason (just 5 for 12 in quality starts and a 90.3% save percentage), but he and Vasilevskiy basically played to a standstill in the series. In fact, Boston wouldn’t have been so close to a Game 5 win if it weren’t for Rask’s performance.
But in the end, Tampa’s skaters were so good. 11 players went on to have multi-point totals in the series, and only the Anton Stralman-Ryan McDonagh defense pair dealt with sub-50% puck possession. If anything, the real unsung heroes were Tampa’s depth forwards that constantly outworked Boston throughout each and every game. The third line of Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli had so much energy on the forecheck while the fourth line of Ryan Callahan, Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz all looked a full five years younger this series. Seriously, when was the last time you saw Callahan skate this fast? And while Nashville had Colton Sissons being one of the finds of the postseason last year, Tampa certainly has a much better late bloomer this year in Gourde.
As long as Vasilevskiy is back to playing at his best, as he has been these first 10 postseason games, the Lightning absolutely have what it takes to win it all. And I haven’t even gotten to the point where Ondrej Palat has been amazing, Tyler Johnson is the healthiest he’s been in years and, oh yeah, Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos are pretty good too. So yeah, Tampa are making us all look stupid for not picking them to winning the Stanley Cup right now. And outside of the Caps, I couldn’t be more happier being wrong.