The Tampa Bay Lightning have seen and beaten 10 straight playoff opponents since the 2020 NHL Playoffs, and after sweeping the Florida Panthers they find themselves in another Eastern Conference Final and poised for the dynasty-sealing threepeat.
Because I’m too impatient to wait for all that, I thought I would rank those 10 series the Bolts played to see which opponent was the most difficult to overcome. Unsurprisingly, this list follows the length of each series pretty well.
Let me know in the comments and in the poll at the bottom which team you think was the biggest threat to stop the Lightning in their tracks at any time during this run. Did I get it right?
10th Place: Florida Panthers (‘22 2nd round) - 4 games
A mere three goals in four games from the league’s best offensive in the regular season was all the Panthers could muster (including only one power play goal) against the Lightning. It almost felt too easy getting an early lead and frustrating a team built on shot volume and rebounds. I also can’t help but think the Panthers were a little cocky too, if you know what I mean.
“It’s 3-0. Who cares. We can come back.” - Jonathan Huberdeau— David Dwork (@DavidDwork) May 22, 2022
All the Lightning had to do to beat the Panthers was close the slot on the power play and let them take point shots, block shots and clear rebounds, and force the Panthers to play defense when they overextended themselves. Even I could see that. This is how the Lightning beat Carolina later in this article, and how countless teams have lost — namely Boston doing it to Toronto in the first round, or Pittsburgh and New York on the Capitals in the second round back in the day.
Breaking through the middle of the ice by making the most of mistakes is what separates great regular season teams from great playoff teams. Not grit.
9th Place: Montreal Canadiens (‘21 4th round) - 5 games
As far as Stanley Cup Finals go, this was quite the mismatch. I don’t have much to say about the Habs other than I’m shocked they made it that far. Credit to Carey Price for having one last hurrah, but the North Division was vastly overrated and Vegas lost their cool offensively and things spiraled for them by the end.
8th Place: Carolina Hurricanes (‘21 2nd round) - 5 games
Alex Nedeljkovic made a name for himself in this series despite losing all three games he started by making some saves, but not enough. Petr Mrazek played the other games and couldn’t stop a thing. Beyond shutting down the Canes offense in a similar style to the Panthers, there wasn’t much getting in the Bolts way.
You’ll notice when I show the heat maps of the Panthers and Hurricanes series that the Lightning were able to push their opponents back to the point and take worse shots, so while the total shots were skewed away from the Lightning, score effects and their defense meant they came out on top in expected goals and better shot quality as a whole.
7th Place: Boston Bruins (‘20 2nd round) - 5 games
It became a trend in TBL vs BOS series that the Bruins would win the first game and then the Lightning would take it in five, and that’s exactly what happened here. However, credit to the Bruins for three one-goal games and two overtimes.
6th Place: Columbus Blue Jackets (‘20 1st round) - 5 games
It started in the most stressful of ways with the 5OT game. Just thinking back to that game, there was definitely a sense of dread to the tune of “oh no not again” after having to mull over the CBJ sweep for over a year. If the Lightning hadn’t won that first game, history could’ve been much different. They might never have gotten their confidence back, lost the series, and the team might’ve been torn up. But they beat their demon and went on to win two (maybe soon three) championships in a row.
It also probably didn’t help the old ticker that four of the five games were one-goal affairs, and the decider also had to go to overtime. I was definitely preparing for a long night back then in August 2020.
5th Place: Dallas Stars (‘20 4th round) - 6 games
Not to diminish the Stars (I do have them in the top five) but the Lightning felt in control of the series the whole way through. The Stars were able to force Game 6, but the inevitable came with a signature 2-0 win. Dallas did a lot of great things to get to the Finals, but you could also tell they were completely out of energy by the end, meanwhile a deeper team in Tampa had gotten lucky with injuries (mostly) and were just a much deeper team.
4th Place: Florida Panthers (‘21 1st round) - 6 games
Chippy, aggressive, violent. But enough about Sam Bennett. This series could’ve been the start of a huge rivalry if this year’s series was a bit more of a series. The Panthers were able to score lots of goals, but they couldn’t stop any, using all three of their goalies (Bobrovsky, Driedger, and Knight) all to no avail.
3rd Place: New York Islanders (‘20 3rd round) - 6 games
Three 2-1 wins against the defensive fortress of NYI really helped cement the legacy that the Lightning weren’t just a glass cannon team anymore, but they could do it all. The Islanders did themselves one better a year later, but this series was the very first time we had seen this type of hockey from the Lightning at all. This series was a slog from start to finish, and two overtime games at the end didn’t help one bit.
2nd Place: Toronto Maple Leafs (‘22 1st round) - 7 games
Back in 2020, not many people were confident the Lightning were going to have the success they ended up getting over the next two seasons, but in 2022 the Lightning are firmly on that pedestal and the Leafs took them to seven games. The only other team to do that is #1 on my list. Editor Achariya put it best after the series was over: it won’t show it on the records, but this was a ECF-quality test for the Lightning. The Leafs nearly did it, and that’s not something to scoff at.
There’s also an affect I’ve wanted to write about for a while, and that is the “there’s always next game” mentality from offensive volume teams. There’s often a mindset (often created by coaches) that persistence will pay off and if that one chance doesn’t go in, there will always be the next one. In the long and tedious regular season, that works great to motivate and keep the players within the system, but it doesn’t work in the playoffs.
Every chance matters, including at the beginning of periods when other teams feel like there’s lots of time to score. The Lightning score a lot early in the period, while teams like Florida, Carolina, and Toronto late in this series failed to do. Sometimes those are bounces and luck (like Marner early in Game 7), but it’s also the insistence of starting on time (Games 2, 4, and 5).
The Lightning didn’t know how to do this for the longest time, and it culminated in the Game 7 loss in the 2018 Conference Finals against the Washington Capitals. The way Holtby and the Caps shut down the Lightning after scoring early and getting those insurance markers only made the mountain so much harder to climb. I think the Lightning learned a lot in that series, namely because it ended up being the blueprint for their two successive Cups. I wonder if Toronto will from learn that mistake; they have the team to do it.
1st Place: New York Islanders (‘21 3rd round) - 7 games
The only other team to take the Lightning to seven games was the Islanders in their second go-around in the Conference Finals. Five one-goal games, one blowout, an overtime loss to set up a Game 7, and a 1-0 shutout against the team known for those wins at the time.
The Islanders were one of the best teams at getting to the front of the net and making the most of their chances, and especially in the seventh game it was down to the wire whether the Islanders were going to level it up, and with an overtime loss in Game 6, there was a lot of anxiety on the Lightning’s side. But they held it together, giving it literally everything, and set up a second consecutive Stanley Cup Final.
My colleague Arvind at PPP has described the Lightning as a team that doesn’t force another team to play their style, but learns the style of their opponents and does it better than them. Often times this is being able to stifle rush offense, but with the Islanders, it was being able to slow the game way down and not make a single mistake. The Lightning made fewer mistakes than the Islanders, and in the last game, Andrei Vasilevskiy made none.
Who has been the easiest out for the Lightning these past 2.5 years?
This poll is closed
2022 Florida Panthers
2021 Montreal Canadiens
2021 Carolina Hurricanes
Who has been the toughest out for the Lightning these past 2.5 years?
This poll is closed
2021 New York Islanders
2022 Toronto Maple Leafs
2020 New York Islanders