Regardless of whether or not the Tampa Bay Lightning secure their third Stanley Cup Championship this season, it doesn’t take away how fortunate we are as a fanbase. After last night’s series-clinching victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Lightning has reached the Conference Final/Semifinal six times in the past eleven seasons. They’ve played in two Stanley Cup Finals during that time span and have remained one of the top teams in the league throughout this run of consistency.
Consistency, that’s the key here. The Lightning has taken their lumps during this run, but they’ve always fought back. This is why it’s always struck me as odd that people thought this team was “soft” in previous playoff failings. A “soft” team doesn’t make six conference/semifinals and either win or force them to go the distance. Soft teams consistently collapse in the most excruciating way. It’s hard to pinpoint any series where the Lightning fully collapsed aside from the 2019 fluke series against the Columbus Blue Jackets (and time has shown that it very much was a fluke). Does that one series inflate the hysteria of the Final loss to Chicago in 2015? The Conference Final losses to Pittsburgh and Washington? I’d argue no, and even though those three series saw the Lightning fail, they still didn’t collapse as a “soft” team would.
Sports fandom lives in the moment and cares little for context. It’s just the nature of the sport, especially in the social media era. It’s why voices like myself get drowned out by hot taeks when the Lightning lose. However, if you take a step back and look at what other teams struggle to do (win a playoff series, close out a series, etc.), we’re pretty dang fortunate to have this stretch of brilliance.
Time will tell if this Lightning core will be discussed in the same breath as the Chicago dynasty or the Pittsburgh back-to-back teams, but this group is on the cusp of being in that rarified air. Securing another final four spot reinforces this mindset, but the job isn’t done yet.
“This is not the end goal,” said Brayden Point, who became the first Lightning player to score three series-clinching goals in a career, and the eighth in NHL history. “There’s still so much work to be done. We can’t get too high here. We’ve got to have some good practice days and wait for our next opponent.”
The Big Cat embodies Tampa Bay’s execution
Tampa Bay executed their game plan to perfection Tuesday night. It’s hard to think any team can beat the Lightning four times if they keep up this kind of play, especially if Andrei Vasilevskiy continues his stellar play in the playoffs. His 29 save masterpiece anchored the Lightning to another series victory, and he made it look effortless.
“We’ve got four lines and all the D and great goaltending,” Point said.
Vasilevskiy was already the best goaltender the Lightning ever had before they won the 2020 Stanley Cup, but the way he elevated his game last postseason and how it’s carried over to this postseason has been a marvel to watch.
The Fourth Line that doesn’t stop
It wasn’t just Vasilevskiy carrying the load. The entire team played an inspired and determined game against a desperate opponent. Obvious credit goes to the top players like Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Point, but the line that has come to life this postseason has been the fourth line of Ross Colton, Tyler Johnson, and Pat Maroon.
Carolina could not control this line, no matter how hard they tried. The line has a brilliant mix of speed (Johnson), control (Maroon), and tenacity (Colton), and they feed off each other.
“I think they were trying to find an identity, and I think they found it,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “You get the confidence, and you have the confidence to play them. It was a matchup game early, and I didn’t really care about the matchups. There was one time they looked at me and said, ‘Are we going?’ And I’m like, ‘Damn, right you’re going. Trust yourself,’ and they did and scored a huge goal for us.”
On a guest spot on The Kuehl Show podcast, I mentioned that I’ve never lost love for Johnson, but I also know what kind of player he is and understand his faults. Sometimes, the fanbase hones in on one player to centralize their angst (Matt Carle, Andrej Sustr, etc.). Johnson is what he is, a flawed NHL player who needs someone else to help drive his line, but that doesn’t mean he’s useless. He’s shown that in the past, and he’s shown it again these past two series. Is he overpaid? Absolutely, but the Lightning has found a way to make it work (having what seems to be an endless supply of Ross Colton-esqe players to plug into the lineup is a luxury other teams don’t have).
Mikhail F****** Sergachev
Folks, I’ve been a Mikhail Sergachev stan since the first day I saw him on the ice. He’s only endeared himself to me even more over the years as he’s blossomed into a phenomenal defenseman. I’ve been saying it for near two years now, but Sergachev is the second-best defenseman on the Lightning. Ryan McDonagh is still fantastic, but he doesn’t control the ice like Sergachev does. Erik Cernak is a bit more controlled in the defensive zone, but he still can’t skate or carry the puck like Sergachev.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed watching a player develop as much as Mikhail Sergachev over the past few years.— Matthew S Esteves (@MatthewSEsteves) June 9, 2021
Also, this is the kind of effort you want from anyone on your team.
“We didn’t want to come back to Tampa and play another game,” Sergachev said. “We wanted to close them down, and we did. It was a great effort today by our guys, blocking shots. Guys were locked in.”
No one was locked in more than Sergachev Tuesday night. His five blocks shouldn’t be overstated, but they were all key in negating a Carolina scoring chance. Mix in his physicality, hockey IQ, and puck carrying ability, and it’s like watching a choreographed routine with the Russian defender.
I hope he stays in Lightning blue for his entire career.
- Since the Lightning traded for him, I’ve been highly critical of David Savard, but he has looked far more comfortable since Game Six against Florida. He was injured for most of this series, but Julien BriseBois’ deadline acquisition looks like he is rounding a corner.
- I feel Carolina threw this series away the moment they swapped starting goaltenders. I know many teams have adopted the tandem goalie route for the regular season, but in the postseason, it’s become more apparent that if you have two goaltenders, then you have none. I won’t pretend to understand goaltending; it’s a position that is more mental than anything else, but if Nedeljkovic is starting Games 3 and 4, who knows how this series goes. Nedeljkovic is going to be a star in this league.
- Carolina is an analytic darling when it comes to how they play, and deservedly so. They carry play exceptionally well, but this series showed a severe flaw in their approach. Their quality suffered greatly against a defensively stout team and a superb goalie. They were also far too comfortable firing shots from the point.
Round 2: Lightning at Hurricanes— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) June 9, 2021
Tampa a little stronger at 5v5, Carolina gained the zone easily but had trouble getting too close to the net. Hurricanes power-play went cold, too. pic.twitter.com/jOIBVNsPjC
- In my opinion, it doesn’t matter who wins between Boston or New York. Tampa Bay will be the favorite, and they’ve had success against both teams in previous postseasons. If we’re looking for an easier matchup, Boston is the likely choice due to recent history, but the Bruins have finally found the one thing that has been ailing them in the postseason, complimentary goal scoring. Boston’s top line has always produced in some manner (5v5 or power-play), but the rest of the team couldn’t score. With Taylor Hall on the team, they have a more balanced attack that the Lightning haven’t seen before. That is something to worry about.
- The Islanders aren’t a whole lot different from last year. They don’t have Devon Toews or Anders Lee, but they’ve found ways to get goals. Their goaltending has also stabilized a bit with Semyon Varlamov, but nothing the Islanders have should worry the Lightning. The biggest issue with New York is their grinding style that proved frustrating in last year's Eastern Conference Final. Tampa prevailed, but every year is different.