The night the Tampa Bay Lightning was officially presented the Presidents’ Trophy, the NHL’s award for the team with the best regular season record, the Washington Capitals were in the building, waiting in their locker room during the ceremony. The Capitals had won it three times since 2010, so they knew to keep a safe distance from what’s a nice achievement on its own but toxic when it comes to winning the sport’s ultimate prize. Tampa Bay won a whopping 62 games this season, lapping the field, so Washington might have seen the Lightning’s unfortunate fate coming.
“Typically when things are going really well for you and you’re having a lot of success, at least from my experience, the longer that success was coming, the easier it was to forget how you created that success,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said a month ago.
It was eerily similar to what Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said after the Columbus Blue Jackets completed their shocking first-round sweep of Tampa Bay with a 7-3 win Tuesday night.
“In today’s game with the parity, it’s not unusual that an eight [seed] beats a one anymore,” Cooper told reporters in Columbus. “Everybody’s that close. In the end, we just couldn’t find our game. That’s it. It’d been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it.”
No league is as unintentionally cruel to its top seed as the NHL. In the 33 seasons that the Presidents’ Trophy has been awarded, just eight teams that claimed it have gone on to win the Stanley Cup; the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks are the last team to pull it off, and that was in a lockout-shortened season. The Capitals finished with the league’s best regular season record in 2010 (first-round loss), 2016 (second-round loss) and 2017 (second-round loss) before winning a franchise-first Stanley Cup last year, when Nashville won the Presidents’ Trophy and then got eliminated in the second round. The playoffs have repeatedly proved that it’s about which team is playing best in the moment rather than which team is the best, and this historic exit — Tampa Bay is the first Presidents’ Trophy team to be swept in the first round — could have ripple effects throughout the league for years to come with how clubs approach the regular season.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse,” Cooper said. “You don’t play any really meaningful hockey for a long time, then all of a sudden you’ve got to amp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality. That’s how it goes, and so you have a historic regular season the way we did and then had basically a historic playoff in defeat.”
It’s hard to argue the Lightning should have purposefully lost more games this season. And no team would seek out adversity. But perhaps there really is something predictive — and negative — about enjoying so much success before the chase for the game’s top prize really begins.
During the regular season, Tampa Bay had the NHL’s top power play and top penalty kill and scored the most goals per game. The team had Nikita Kucherov, who put up a league-leading 128 points this season, and two other players — Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point — finished with more than 90. All three then fell short against Columbus. Kucherov tallied just two points with no goals in three games played, and he was suspended for Game 3 after he needlessly boarded Columbus’s Markus Nutivaara late in a Game 2 blowout. Stamkos finished with an abysmal minus-8 rating with just one goal and one assist, and Point scored one goal and had no assists.
The Lightning had a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1, but then the Blue Jackets stormed back to win that game and every other one, outscoring Tampa Bay 19-5 over the final 11 periods of the series. Top defenseman Victor Hedman missed Games 3 and 4 because of an undisclosed injury.
“If you don’t accomplish your goal of winning it all, it’s a failure,” Stamkos told reporters. “We don’t care about what happened in the regular season.”
Others will learn from the Lightning’s downfall, but the Blue Jackets’ bold approach to this season could similarly become a model. Columbus was in a position to make the playoffs before the late-February trade deadline, but it wasn’t a sure thing and there was nothing obvious that suggested this group would be the one to finally win a series for the first time in franchise history. General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen had a conundrum on his roster: The team’s most talented player, winger Artemi Panarin, wouldn’t commit to re-signing, so Kekalainen had to consider dealing him to get some return on the asset rather than lose him for nothing in free agency. He decided to hold on to Panarin for the postseason push and then doubled down, acquiring pending free agent forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa in a haul that included at least one first-round pick and two second-rounders.
The Blue Jackets struggled immediately after the trades, but then they surged, winning seven of their final eight games. Just getting into the postseason, as the last team to punch its ticket, gave Columbus a chance. Might that lead to general managers now being more aggressive with in-season deals? Duchene scored three goals and had four assists in the Blue Jackets’ first four playoff games.
After Stamkos scored his lone goal of the series 8:44 into Game 4 to halve Columbus’s lead, the camera showed Cooper on the Tampa Bay bench imploring his players. “This is our [expletive] chance,” he appeared to say. The Lightning tied it at 3 in the second period, but then the Blue Jackets pulled back ahead less than a minute later and stayed there. There’s a case to be made that so much regular season success doesn’t prepare a team for the adversity it could face in the playoffs. It also adds pressure; the Tampa Bay Times announced it would produce a hardcover coffee-table book on the Lightning’s season regardless of the ultimate outcome.
Tampa Bay advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2015, losing to the Blackhawks, and the team has gotten to the Eastern Conference finals twice since. But for how much talent is on the roster, the Lightning has taken over the postseason underachievers mantle from the Capitals. Overturning a roster that had so much regular season success and contains some of the best bargains in the league probably would be an overreaction. Cooper’s job seems safe after he signed a multiyear extension during the season.
If Washington could impart some advice, it probably would be to stay patient.
“It’s funny. We were expected to go far this year, and we go nowhere,” Cooper said. “How many teams have gone through this? They knock at the door, they knock at the door, and look at Washington for example. Didn’t they win the Presidents’ [Trophy]? They had two remarkable years and were bounced in the second round, and the year that nobody expected them to do anything, they won the Stanley Cup. I mean, it’s crazy how it works, but that’s what happens.”