Maybe they choked, maybe they were outplayed or maybe it was a little bit of both but the Tampa Bay Lightning, this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner with an NHL record-tying 62 wins during the regular season, were swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
You could place the blame in a number of areas but the reality is Tampa Bay became the fifth team in NHL history to finish with the league’s best regular season record and get swept in their opening-round playoff series, joining the 1920-21 Toronto St. Patricks, 1923-24 Ottawa Senators, 1928-29 Montreal Canadiens and 1937-38 Boston Bruins.
“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said after Game 4. “The guys battled hard. Six days in April, Columbus played better than we did. That was it.”
Now the question becomes: Was this the worst upset in the history of the NHL? In all of sports?
First-round sweeps in the NHL are rare. Since 1987, the first year the NHL extended the best-of-five series in the first round to a best-of-seven, a first-round sweep has occurred 13 percent of the time. Subjective reasoning will likely bring us to different conclusions, but if we use Vegas money lines to gauge how rare this sweep of Tampa Bay was, we can put it in historical context. For example, the Lightning was minus-400 on the money line to beat the Blue Jackets in the first round, meaning you had to wager $400 to win $100. That money line also implies an 80 percent win probability. The 2003 Detroit Red Wings, by comparison, were minus-850 on the money line (89 percent implied win rate) to beat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs that year but they, too, were swept, putting at least one upset ahead of Tampa Bay’s latest debacle. The 2001 Ottawa Senators, swept by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, were minus-340 on the money line (77 percent implied win rate) to win that series, putting the Lightning’s loss between those two ignominious defeats.
But those odds reflect those teams’ chances of winning the series, not the odds of them losing four straight games. Using our postseason probabilities model — which takes into account a team’s actual win-loss record with more weight given toward the end of the season after the trade deadline; its expected win-loss record based on goals scored and allowed — also known as its Pythagorean winning percentage; and its expected win-loss record based on expected goals for and against, a metric created by defunct hockey website Corsica — we would expect a team like Columbus to sweep a team like Tampa Bay 3 percent of the time.
That same method would estimate Anaheim would complete its sweep of Detroit in 2003 just 4 percent of the time. The margin of error using this approach is admittedly unknown, so a 1 percentage point difference is hardly enough to definitively say one upset was more tragic than another.
As for all sports, the Lightning certainly have a case for the worst outcome over the past 20 years. When the 2001 Seattle Mariners set the MLB regular season record for wins they managed to advance to the American League Championship Series before succumbing to the New York Yankees. The 2007 New England Patriots went 16-0 during the regular season and lost the Super Bowl by a field goal. The Golden State Warriors set an NBA record for wins in 2015-16 and reached the NBA Finals, ultimately losing to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games. Tampa Bay enjoyed none of that success and will now wallow in an offseason’s worth of misery.
“We couldn’t find our game. It’s that clear. For six days in April, we couldn’t find it,” Cooper said. “It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was one helluva regular season.”