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Cup or bust: We’re all in it together

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Give me a Cup or give me another summer resigned to reading hot takes from nincompoops.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning just completed one of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history. They won 62 games, which matched the all-time record set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-1996. They ran away with the President’s Trophy, clinching it when only one other team had even secured a playoff spot. Their best player, Nikita Kucherov, will likely win the Hart Trophy as league MVP this season. Their coach, Jon Cooper, will likely win the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach. Several other players will be up for various awards and trophies.

This is one of the best teams in NHL history

Along the way this season, we here at Raw Charge used a couple of different approaches to show the team’s dominance. Back in December, looked at recent history showing that the roster was among the deepest since the league started providing more complete data in 2007-2008. Going back to that season, only one team before this had their thirteen best forwards and seven best defenders above replacement level according to Evolving Hockey. The Lightning officially became the second team to accomplish that meaning they are one of the deepest groups in this era of statistics.

More recently, we went even further comparing this version of the Lightning to all teams going back to 1922 using standings points and goal differential. The numbers haven’t changed much at all since the article was written so the case made at the time stands. By those measures, the Lightning finished the season as arguably the most dominant team relative to their competition in the league.

Based on any measure of team success, this season’s Lightning reached a level of historical excellence that puts them in the conversation with the best teams of all time. But because of the culture around North American sports, almost no one will stop to admire it. Instead, the conversation will blow past and whip into discussion of the Stanley Cup. In most places, it already has.

But now, no one cares about the regular season

In this part of the world, we don’t respect regular season achievements. Everything is about the playoffs. European soccer is the opposite. League trophies are valued while tournaments are considered separate things. Adornments to the primary achievement and celebrated in their own way but not so much as to diminish the gains made over a long season.

Here, we do things differently. The regular season exists as a vehicle to get to the tournament. No one cares which team can be consistently the best over a large sample. People care about the chaos of the small sample where talent doesn’t have time to overcome chance and any outcome is possible.

We love March Madness, a single elimination tournament, for exactly that reason. A team can go go undefeated all year, lose in the second round to a team that went 22-12, and we all accept that the latter team deserves to continue to have a chance to be The Champion while the former does not. Absurd on its face but those are the very dumb rules upon which we’ve all agreed.

Mostly, we like this because it works in the aggregate. More chaos means more teams have a chance at winning it all means more fans have a chance at enjoying that moment. And if your team isn’t one of the very best, what a boon for you!

The Colorado Avalanche are not better than the Calgary Flames. But in a seven games series, hey, who knows? Nathan MacKinnon goes on a heater. Phillip Grubauer masters the art of postseason headstands. Either of those things could send the Flames home well before they deserve and the Avs onward hoping the roulette wheel continues to favor them on their way to more upsets.

But if you are a fan of one of the very best teams, what a nightmare for you. Your team just had a great regular season and you can’t even celebrate it because what comes next is perceived as markedly more important. Even if you try to intellectually understand that a great regular season is more impressive and a better accomplishment than a sequence of small sample victories, it doesn’t matter. This time of year still FEELS more important. Years of conditioning and acculturation to North American sports ensures it.

Lightning fans this year will be the ultimate example of this. One of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history will feel at best diminished and at worst wasted if the team doesn’t raise the Cup in June. Teams and their fanbases across all sports experience this phenomenon. But the particular aggressive randomness of small sample hockey makes the NHL a concentrated dose of perpetual impending doom.

Hockey is a cruel sport

Whenever I think about this, I always go back to a graphic made by Michael Lopez. You can see it on slide 31 here. In the NBA and NFL, the better team wins most of the time. In MLB and the NHL, outcomes are closer to a coin flip. MLB has traditionally handled this by inviting fewer teams to their postseason. By only allowing the best teams into the tournament, they minimize the likelihood of an undeserving team winning.

Hockey does no such thing. The NHL allows over half of the league into its tournament, awards no advantages to higher seeds other than one extra game of home-ice, and waits for the chaos to unfurl. This is what people love about the NHL playoffs. Especially casual fans, fans of non-playoff teams in a given year, and fans of teams in the muddy middle. Knowing anything can happen on any night makes every game worth watching and gives every fan of every team that makes the tournament at least a sliver of hope.

But for those of us who root for one of the best teams, or in this case, THE best team, this is where things get dicey. If the Lighting have to win the Cup for this season to be a success, then we are setting ourselves up for a brutal disappointment.

Using Micah Blake McCurdy’s more pessimistic model and Dom Luszczyszyn’s more optimistic model as bookends, the Lightning currently have between an 11% chance and a 24% chance of winning the Stanley Cup. In the context of an NHL team winning a title, those are good odds. But in real life, they are not.

Reversed, this means Tampa has between a 76% chance and an 89% chance of NOT winning the Cup. Reread those numbers. Think about them. Sit with them. Ruminate in them. Stop just short of drowning in them.

The odds are never in our favor

Let’s take this outside of the context of hockey. If you check the news tomorrow morning and you see that the chance of rain is 80%, how do you interpret that? That it’s probably going to rain, right? And you make sure the umbrella is in the car. Like, if you just ignore that, you know there’s a good chance you’re walking the two blocks from your car to the office in a storm and toweling off with paper towels in the bathroom in the hopes of not so obviously being the soaking wet person in the office.

That’s how I’m approaching this postseason. I can’t deny that it feels like this Lightning season needs a Cup to feel complete. I also understand they probably won’t get one. And so I’m probably going to be sitting at my desk in wet clothes all day. That’s just the deal. Part of being an NHL fan.

The same thing that made many of us fans in the first place, the chaotic unpredictable nature of the game, is the exact thing that will likely lead to an especially bitter disappointment for Lightning fans. And they need only look to the team that eliminated them last year for confirmation of this.

The Washington Capitals have been one of the best teams in the NHL for over a decade. They didn’t win a Cup until last year in a season that was decidedly not their best and after some had already given up on them as serious contenders.

But the same pesky variance that caused Washington to tumble back down the mountain before reaching the summit so many times is exactly what caused the delayed gratification that made last summer’s celebrations so over the top. That unbounded joy can’t occur without what came before. All the failures in previous seasons and even the near failures last spring. What makes hockey victories so rewarding is precisely how unlikely they are.

If the Lightning don’t win this year, they will lock in their position as the New Caps. This story has already been pushed in lots of places. Tampa is the new “good in the regular season but can’t come through in the post season” team. If they don’t win this year, the story will grow.

Bad writers will retrofit bad narratives to explain the loss because everyone loves the chaotic randomness of the NHL until it comes time to accept it as the reason for the outcomes we observe. Instead, we’ll hear about effort or culture or clutch performance or some other nonsense. Teams don’t win 62 games without those things. To suggest otherwise is lazy and boring. Unfortunately, most of the hockey media has never been afraid to be that.

The 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning are one of the best teams in NHL history. Try not to forget that. They tied the wins record. They lapped the league. They proved beyond any doubt they’re better than everyone else. But sadly that doesn’t change the reality of postseason hockey.

So strap in. Get your superstitions in order. March out the front door proudly umbrella free under a dark gray sky with thunder rumbling in the distance. Are we gonna get soaked? Probably. But that’s what we came here for. And who knows, maybe this is the season we get to celebrate a brief moment of clear skies before the rain inevitably returns.