In a six-day span in April 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered the most colossal collapse in NHL history.
After entering the 2018-19 season as heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the Lightning became only the second team in the history of the NHL to win 62 games, matching the total set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Tampa Bay earned 128 points during the regular season, securing the President’s Trophy for the best record in the NHL, by 21 points [in 1995-96, Detroit earned a record 131 points while capturing the Trophy by an all-time best margin of 31]. It was the first President’s Trophy in Lightning history and guaranteed them home ice throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After clinching a playoff spot March 8, then winning their second consecutive Atlantic Division title shortly after St. Patrick’s Day, Tampa was swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had secured their postseason spot in dramatic fashion on the second-to-last night of the regular season.
“There’s a storm a-brewin’ in the NHL,” wrote wtsp.com following the Lightning’s March 18 victory over the Arizona Coyotes, clinching the Atlantic Division title, the Eastern Conference title and the President’s Trophy for Tampa Bay.
The 2018-19 Lightning were a juggernaut. Featuring a vaunted, north-south attack, they scored 325 goals, tops in the league, while only allowing 222. Three players scored more than 40 goals and two others buried over 20. Tampa had the league’s best power play, and a dozen Lightning skaters tallied more than 30 points.
The Lightning were consistent. They went 32-7-2 at Amalie Arena and 30-9-2 on the road. Tampa lost back-to-back games only twice and posted winning streaks of seven [twice], eight and ten games. After losing to the eventual the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in overtime February 7, they dropped only two games in the next six weeks. Tampa was relentless. They knew how to bury opponents, going 38-4-3 after scoring first. What’s more, the Lighting won 78 percent of their games when tied after two periods, including a 7-1-1 road record in those games.
Tampa Bay’s 2018-19 season was the polar opposite of that of the St. Louis Blues. The Blues went from worst to first, capturing the Stanley Cup title after sitting in last place just five months prior. Conversely, the Lightning compiled the second-best record in the 100-year history of the NHL, then became the first President’s Trophy recipient to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. While St. Louis’ quest for the Cup lasted two months and required a record-tying 26 games, Tampa Bay’s playoff run was over in less than a week.
Plus-Minus is a telling statistic that measures a player’s impact on a game measured by the difference between their team’s goal-scoring versus their opponents when the player is on the ice. In 2018-19, six of the top 20 Plus-Minus players in the NHL wore the lightning bolt on their sweater.
The 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs were historic. For the first time in league history, all division winners were eliminated in the first round, while all the wild-cards advanced. The two teams with the best regular-season records – Tampa and the Calgary Flames – suffered monumental meltdowns, bowing out in the first round. Despite having earned home ice, the two clubs won only one game between them.
The Lightning were loaded. Captain Steven Stamkos, right-winger Nikita Kucherov, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy were named to the Atlantic Division All-Star Team, which was coached by Tampa Bay head man, Jon Cooper. Kucherov, a six-year veteran who led the NHL in Plus-Minus in 2015, topped the league in points, assists, and goals created in 2018-19. The Russian rocket also captured the Ted Lindsey Award as the best player in the league and Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Second-Team All-Star Victor Hedman was the reigning Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman and center Anthony Cirelli was named to the All-Rookie Team.
In addition to receiving his second All-Star nod, Vasilevskiy set several single-season franchise records in 2018-19, including most wins, shutouts, and saves by a goaltender. After leading the NHL in shutouts, wins and fewest power play goals allowed, the 24-year-old Russian was voted the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. Vasilevskiy, who in March 2019 surpassed Ben Bishop for most saves in franchise history [5,739], was the first Tampa player ever to win the coveted Vezina.
Of the 30 other teams in the NHL, only the Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues had a better record against the Tampa Bay Lightning in head-to-head play during the 2018-19 season.
Tampa Bay had better Stanley Cup odds than any team entering the playoffs. The regular season league champions opened at home April 10, losing to Columbus 4-3. Things didn’t get better two nights later when the Blue Jackets skated to a 5-1 victory. The series shifted to Ohio April 14, where the home team prevailed 3-1. As the pressure mounted, the Lightning imploded, dropping the finale 7-3 to complete the sweep and end the most historic calamity in NHL history.
After averaging nearly four goals and 6.67 assists per game during the regular season, the Lightning lost their thunder, tallying only eight goals and 14 points in four playoff games. “We just didn’t find our game,” said Cooper, who guided Tampa to the Stanley Cup finals in 2015. “That was it. It’d been with us all year, and for six days in April, we couldn’t find it.” In 53 regular-season games, Vasilevskiy posted a save percentage of .925 and a goals-against average of 2.40. But under the crucible of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the 19th overall pick of the 2012 draft allowed 15 goals in four games while compiling a dismal .856 save percentage.
Since the 1985-86 season, only eight of the 33 teams that finished the regular campaign with the most points have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. Seven of the 33 President’s Trophy winners lost in the first round of the playoffs, including the 2011-12 Vancouver Canucks, who fell to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. While each of these first-round exits were not only surprising but embarrassing, none can match the playoff futility shown by the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning.
In explaining their 2019 fall, Tampa Bay fans may point to the Game 3 suspension of Kucherov after their leading scorer was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for boarding in the waning moments of a Game 2 blowout loss. Or that Victor Hedman missed Game 3 with an undisclosed injury. But the road to becoming Stanley Cup champion is long, arduous and paved with adversity. Last year, it took Jon Cooper until August before he could muster the stomach to re-watch Tampa’s seven-game series loss to the Washington Capitals in the 2018 Eastern Conference final, so painful was the memory. How long will he need this time around?