It’s hard to imagine a better season than the 2018-2019 go-around for the Tampa Bay Lightning. The club finished with a 62-16-4 record, good for first in the Atlantic Division, first in the Eastern Conference and first in the National Hockey League. They became the second team in NHL history to win 62 games, tying the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings.
The Lightning snagged the Presidents’ Trophy and made their way into the playoffs, where the unthinkable happened: Tampa was swept out of the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So, what went wrong?
Offensively, Tampa was the best team in the league. By a lot.
The Lightning scored 325 goals in 2018-2019, 36 more than the Calgary Flames and San Jose Sharks. They boasted five players with at least 20 goals and three players with at least 40 goals, including Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
Stamkos led the way with 45 goals, not a career-high. He did post a career-high 98 points and a career-high two short-handed goals, though.
Kucherov had 41 goals and a team-leading 128 points, both career-highs. He also posted a career-high 87 assists, along with 15 power play goals and 48 power play points.
For Point, it was a coming out party for sure. He put together a career-high 41 goals and a career-high 92 points, besting the previous year’s 66 points. He had a whopping 20 power play goals and 35 power play points.
If you’re spotting a trend, it’s that Tampa habitually put pucks in the net and habitually made the most of their power play. They led the league on the man-advantage with a 28.2 percent success rate, scoring 74 goals. Point, Kucherov and Stamkos accounted for 73 percent of that power play output.
Defensively, Tampa was perfectly capable. They were the third stingiest team in the Eastern Conference, allowing just 222 goals against. That gave them a league-leading goal differential of plus-103, which basically means you’re going to win a lot of hockey games.
Tampa’s goaltending came down to the stellar play of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who posted a goals against average of 2.40 and a save percentage of .925. Apart from his 13-start debut season in 2014-2015, 2018-2019 was Vasilevskiy’s best year of NHL hockey. He won the Vezina Trophy as a result.
But Vasilevskiy was less than stellar when it came to meeting the Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs and that’s where the trouble begins. The netminder posted a goals against average of 3.83 against Columbus, complete with a miserable .856 save percentage. The Jackets only managed 104 shots on goal across four games and the 15 goals they scored was enough to secure the series sweep.
It obviously didn’t help that Kucherov, Stamkos and Point were held to a combined two goals, with Kucherov not scoring at all on nine shots. Stamkos finished the playoffs as a minus-eight, a fair shade off his regular season plus-27.
The Blue Jackets answered the bell because they produced a balanced attack, with a dozen players hitting the scoresheet in the series. Their forecheck was potent and prevented Tampa from finding rhythm and they rattled Kucherov into a suspension.
Fixing this is a matter of discipline and focus, which is why Tampa Bay is best served staying the course. After all, you don’t mess too much with a team that has a Vezina-winning goalie and a forward who scooped the Ted Lindsay Award and Hart Memorial Trophy.
In the regular season, very little went wrong. But when things get complicated in the post-season, Tampa will need to find a better game plan to avoid another shocking upset. And I for one wouldn’t bet against the Lightning in 2019-2020. They’ve got a lot to prove and vengeance is on the table.
Photo credit: NHL.com