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This Isn’t 2016: Comparing the Tampa Bay Lightning’s last two Eastern Conference Finals

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The 2018 Lightning aren’t the 2016 Lightning. And the 2018 Caps aren’t the 2016 Pens.

Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Five

The Tampa Bay Lightning are headed for a game seven against the Washington Capitals after losing 3-0 and failing to close out the Caps in six games. That alone is enough to send Lightning land into a frenzy with comparisons to 2016 when the team was up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins before losing the series in seven games. But beyond the surface similarity, the two series have little in common.

As we covered over the weekend, the most distinguishing feature of this Easter Conference Final is just how close the two teams are in most metrics. Going into Sunday’s game six, the teams were practically tied in expected goals at both 5v5 and in all situations.

Below is an updated version of the series chart including game six. All data is via Natural Stat Trick and Corsica.

The Caps now have a slight lead in expected goals at 5v5 but the split is 51/49, which is incredibly close for a six-game span. Both teams have had stretches where they look to be the better team but on the whole, I can’t see an argument for either team being clearly better.

That was not the story in 2016. After three games in that series, I wrote about just how lopsided the series was. And it didn’t get any better from there. The chart below covers the first six games of that Penguins series. Anecdotally, it feels like that series is remembered as being close because it went to seven games. But on the ice, the Lightning got stomped in almost ever game. The expected goal share in those first six games was 60/40 in favor of the Pens. That’s a huge difference from the 51/49 series we’re watching now.

In that series, the Lightning only had two games where they generated more expected goals than the Penguins. And in four of those games, they generated less than 32%(!!!) of the expected goals. The eye test wasn’t any better. The Penguins dominated them with a relentless forecheck and the Lightning went minutes at a stretch where all they could do was dump the puck out of the defensive zone, get a line change, and go right back to getting hemmed in by the Pens.

Part of that was because of weaknesses on the blue line. Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr were still playing prominent roles. Matt Carle was still getting minutes. But most of it was because that Pens team was just so damn good. That was the year that Mike Sullivan took over mid-season and the team transformed into a destructive monster that would go on to win the Cup and repeat the following year in 2017.

This Caps team is not that Pens team. The Lightning were outplayed thoroughly in 2016 and for good reason. That hasn’t been the case this year. This Lightning team is just as good as the Caps if not better. The Bolts were certainly the favorite coming into the series and while Washington seems to be a different team in the playoffs than they were in the regular season, I can’t see any argument that the Lightning shouldn’t be at least even heading into game seven at home.

Before game seven in 2016, my mindset was basically, “Anything can happen in a game seven and it will need to for the Lightning to win.” Unfortunately, that game went exactly the way the rest of the series went with the Lightning getting just 31% of the expected goals at 5v5 and heading home while the Pens went on to lift the Cup.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but the numbers set much different expectations for this game seven. The Lightning are plenty capable of winning this game and moving on the Final. Game seven in 2016 needed a miracle. Even the 2016 team playing at their peak would have needed a healthy helping of luck to beat that Pens team. Game seven in 2018 just needs the Lightning to play well. The peak version of this team is capable of beating the Caps without any help from the Hockey Gods. That isn’t to say a little help wouldn’t be appreciate, of course.

Game sevens are inherently fluky. Reducing hockey to a single-game sample is a recipe for unexpected outcomes. Weird deflections, unlikely snipes, questionable penalties, or momentary mental mistakes can all determine who wins or loses in a single game. And the haunting specter of Goalies Doing Goalie Things hangs over every game like a thick ominous fog threatening to dissolve either team’s season into a hazy mist of what might have been.

2016 was a good team trying to overcome a great team. 2018 is different. I’m not sure either of these teams is great in the way that Pens team was. But both have plenty of talent and if both teams play to their potential on Wednesday, we’ll likely get a game that enthralls the neutral fans and reduces fans of both teams into puddles of emotional ectoplasm.

As fans, we have about 35 hours to prepare for that from the time this publishes. So while the teams goes through their final preparations, you do the same. Stock up on Cold Ones. Clean your house. Make sure your lucky clothing is ready. Embrace your hockey rituals. They all matter.

Whatever happens in game seven, it won’t be history repeating itself. This isn’t the 2016 Tampa Bay Lightning. This is the 2018 Tampa Bay Lightning. And they’ll write their own history on Wednesday night.