Forgive me up front as there’s not going to be much structure to this. This is going to be more free flowing and stream of consciousness as I sit here and reflect before the Tampa Bay Lightning start their third consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance.
I listen to NHL Network Radio on XM Radio quite a bit when I’m in the car. There’s a wide variety of voices on the channel. There’s a good combination of long-time and newer journalists along with plenty of former NHL players. There’s even an ex-general manager or two in the mix too. One topic that has come up pretty often in discussion is this question... “Is this Lightning team one of the best of all-time?”
Obviously, it’s hard to compare to the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, and Edmonton Oilers teams that were dynasties in every sense of the word. They dominated the NHL for long stretches. They won multiple, consecutive Stanley Cup victories. They had some of the best players to ever grace the ice in the NHL. Names like Lafleur. Lapointe. Lemaire. Savard. Dryden. Trottier. Bossy, Gilles. Potvin. Smith. Gretzky. Coffey. Kurri. Messier. Fuhr.
But it’s also hard to compare those teams to the Tampa Bay Lightning as well. They operated during a time when there was no salary cap. When there were less teams in the NHL. When they didn’t have to win 16 playoff games to win the Stanley Cup. A time where it was easier, if you had the money, to keep all your best players for many years in a row to continuously run it back.
The Lightning haven’t had that luxury. Over the past eight seasons, they’ve had to shed players along the way because of the salary cap. Players that the team very much would have liked to keep around. The only players left from that 2015 Stanley Cup Final team are Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Steven Stamkos. Six players, and Vasilevskiy was still the back-up to Ben Bishop. Going back to the 2018 Eastern Conference Final, you only add Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point to that previous group.
This team has constantly had to re-shape it’s depth and adjust it’s core players because of the challenges of the salary cap. And not only that, but over the past two seasons, deal with a flat cap. A cap that was expected to rise nicely, especially with the signing of new television deals. A cap that instead has remained stagnant due to the revenue losses of the pandemic.
So are these Lightning one of the best teams of all-time? A team that you can place in that group of all-time greats I listed above? Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t know if this, right now, is quite enough to convince the majority. The Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Chicago Blackhawks won three Cups over six seasons. Does the Lightning stand out enough compared to those teams? In ways, yes because of the sustained success and the consecutive Final appearances. In other ways, no, because both of those franchises have won three Cups during the Salary Cap Era.
I do know that to cement the legacy, and to convince the majority of NHL fans and media that this team deserves to be listed with that group of Dynasties, the Lightning need to win another one. The window isn’t closed after this season by any stretch. The salary cap is a constantly looming threat to keeping this great team together and keeping the window open. Even if it isn’t this year, then winning another Cup (or two if we want to be greedy) in the next couple years would definitely do it.
This is going to be a tough series. The Avalanche are by far the most talented, fastest, deepest roster the Lightning have faced in the past three playoffs. The Lightning will have to play at the top of their game. They’re going to have to play like they did the last four games of the Eastern Conference Final. It’s going to take every player from the top to the bottom of the line up playing at their best.
Team defense and goaltending are the keys for the Lightning to keep the Avalanche in check. The silver lining is that Darcy Kuemper isn’t as good as Igor Shesterkin and hasn’t been at his best in these playoffs. The Lightning won’t need to get as many quality chances as they did against the Rangers to find the back of the net. And that’s good, because the Lightning aren’t likely to get as many chances as they did against the Rangers. The Avs are a far better 5v5 team and are excellent at controlling the puck.
Some forwards have been underperforming in their finishing and I’m really hoping that regresses back towards their normal performances in this series with a goalie that isn’t quite as good. Even if the team defense is really strong and the Lightning don’t give up a lot, they’re going to need offensive production from up and down the line up.
Getting Brayden Point back will also be a big boost in this area as he is one of the best finishers on the team. Even if his skating isn’t 100%, he’s got the hands and the IQ to still get open and find his chances. It looks like when he gets in the line-up, he’ll be paired up with Nick Paul and Ross Colton. Paul has been playing a lot of minutes in the absence of Point. While the production wasn’t there for him in the Conference Finals, he’s playing really strong hockey. He, as well as Colton, can go into the tough areas and dig the puck out for Point to work his magic while they get to the front of the net.
Last round, we got to see two of the best goaltenders in the world today duke it out in Andrei Vasilevskiy and Igor Shesterkin. Shesterkin was the better goalie in the series, but the Lightning were the better team and won because of their superior structure.
This round, we get to see two of the best defensemen in the world today. Victor Hedman is a beast, for obvious reasons. And so is Cale Makar. Makar isn’t big, but he’s fast, mobile, and has incredible hands and vision. He’s not just a passer either, he’s got a lethal shot and scored like a forward during the regular season and that hasn’t cooled off in the playoffs either as his goal scoring has been at basically the same pace.
Between Makar, MacKinnon, and Rantanen, it’ll be a big question mark of if the Lightning can slow them down. Keep them out of the dangerous areas of the ice and to the perimeter. We know Cooper will be trying to get the Cirelli line out against them whenever possible. They’ve been effective in these playoffs at keeping the puck out of the back of their net. The challenge of taking on the Avs top line is going to be just as hard, and probably harder, than any of the other match-ups they’ve been asked to take on.
When the Lightning are on the road for this series, it’s going to be harder for Cooper to match Cirelli up against MacKinnon. So whoever that line gets sent out against is going to need to be aware of when he’s on the ice. Keep the game simple, and do the right things, and keep the puck out of the net.
It’s been a true joy to be on this journey the past three seasons. I never thought I would get to see this team raise the Stanley Cup on home ice and be there in person to witness it. Especially after they won in the bubble in 2020 and I didn’t get to see a single minute of the playoffs live, I thought I had missed my opportunity (though if those games had been in person, the final game would have been in Dallas anyways). Stanley Cups don’t come around all that often. We’ve been spoiled getting to see two in a row AND we have another chance to see it happen in the next two weeks.
So many other franchises have gone without a Stanley Cup for far longer. Or even a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Heck, the Lightning have lifted the Cup three times and been to five Stanley Cup Finals since the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs have won a playoff round. We’re incredibly lucky to be witnessing this team. To be witnessing all of these Hall of Fame caliber players that have grown up and become Champions right before our very eyes.
I think that’s enough rambling for today. I’m excited for this Stanley Cup Final to start tonight. I’m excited to see how it will turn out and I’m hoping for the best. I’m hoping this team cements their legacy as one of the best teams of all-time.
Let’s Go Bolts!
Be The Thunder!