AVALANCHE

Five things you need to know about the Tampa Bay Lightning

Jun 13, 2022, 12:34 AM | Updated: 12:48 am
Andrei Vasilevskiy...
(Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)

If you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.

But strangely enough, the Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t become back-to-back champions by beating the best of the rest of the NHL — at least not in the Final.

Indeed, the Colorado Avalanche represent the Lightning’s sternest Final test since they faced the Chicago Blackhawks seven years ago this month. Tampa Bay lost that series four games to two, but that campaign effectively launched the Lightning into the league’s top tier. With the exception of a 2016-17 season in which the Bolts missed the playoffs by a single point, they’ve remained there ever since.

In the eight seasons starting with 2014-15, Tampa Bay has two Stanley Cups, four conference championships, six appearances in the Eastern Conference Final and a Presidents’ Trophy. In their two Conference Finals defeats in that span, they took the eventual Stanley Cup winners to seven games.

Only in the 2018-19 postseason did they lay an egg, and it was as embarrassing a playoff faceplant as has ever been seen in professional sports. Against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Tampa Bay became the first Presidents’ Trophy winners ever to get swept out of the first round.

Guiding Columbus then was John Tortorella, who was behind the bench for the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup win. He knew how to defuse his old team.

But it was the aftermath that launched the Lightning to their greatest success yet. And now they sit in their third straight Stanley Cup Final, becoming the first team to make three consecutive finals since the 1983-85 Edmonton Oilers.

“We created a monster,” Tortorella told The Athletic earlier this spring.

And now that battle-hardened monster is what stands between the Avs and the Stanley Cup.

What you need to know about the Lightning:

***

1. EVERYTHING STARTS WITH ANDREI VASILEVSKIY

One can argue the Avalanche have advantages up and down the matchup board. The Avs are faster and more skilled. They’re deeper, too.

But where the Avs have a question mark, Tampa Bay has the answer: goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. He is to the Lightning what Patrick Roy was to the Avs and Martin Brodeur to the New Jersey Devils. And like both of them, Vasilevskiy gives the Lightning a puncher’s chance when everything else short-circuits.

He’s one of eight goaltenders to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) and Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) in his career. Yet only three ever accomplished both at a younger age than Vasilevskiy, who won the Vezina at age 24 and the Conn Smythe at age 26: Ken Dryden, Ron Hextall and … Roy himself, who had both trophies in his case by age 23.

But of those, only Dryden was a Finals mainstay at such a young age as Vasilevskiy is. And in nearly half of the Lightning’s postseason games this season — eight of 17 — he’s allowed one or zero goals. Last year, he did that in 11 of 23 games.

Age and the salary cap are catching up to much of the Lightning roster. Stars like Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman are age 32 and 31, respectively.

But when it comes to making deep playoff runs, they’ll always have a chance as long as Vasilevskiy is in net.

***

2. TAMPA BAY LEARNED THE HARD WAY

It’s a different team now that it was a few years ago. In a six-season stretch from 2014-15 through 2019-20, the Lightning led the NHL in goals four times. And while no one can confuse them with the NHL’s rabble of middling muckers, these Bolts don’t rain goals like their predecessors did.

The humbling 2019 loss to the Blue Jackets forced change upon the Lightning. Before that series, Tampa Bay was what the Avalanche are now: a dazzling, deep team with speed to skate through the neutral zone at will. The Blue Jackets went physical on the Lightning. Had the Bolts not adapted, Columbus’ blueprint would have been repeated against them.

Instead, the Lightning made tweaks. The team added toughness through additions like left winger Patrick Maroon. It transformed into a chameleon — a team with enough skill and explosiveness to play a wide-open game, but the willingness to grind and wait for their chances. And the Bolts’ offensive firebrand, right wing Nikita Kucherov, became hardened. Columbus banged and checked him out of his comfort zone in 2019. For the most part, those tactics haven’t worked since then.

Kucherov’s evolution mirrors that of the entire club, which became less dynamic, but more complete. Their eventual success against the Rangers once again showed their ability to grind out wins and squelch a foe’s opportunities to build momentum. Now the Bolts face a different test: an Avalanche squad that is as dynamic as their own late-2010s editions — only more explosive and faster.

***

3. THIS YEAR, THE BOLTS FACED THEIR TOUGHEST PATH

In 2020, the Lightning took out the seventh, fourth and second seeds in the Eastern Conference playoffs en route to beading Dallas, four games to two, in the COVID-19 bubble.

A year later, their path was sterner; they faced the third- and fourth-best 2021 regular-season teams in the NHL in the first two rounds, beating Florida and Carolina. But in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning took out the Islanders and Montreal, two teams who were the fourth seeds from their divisions in that year’s altered playoff format. The Canadiens had the worst regular-season record last year of any postseason qualifier, and the Lightning dispatched them in five games.

This year, the Lightning’s path is different. They were one of five Eastern Conference teams to reach 110 points this season … and three of the four others were their postseason opponents, including Presidents’ Trophy winners Florida. Facing the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals was a slight break, but the Rangers had home-ice advantage and arguably the hottest goaltender in the playoffs.

And now the Bolts get the Avalanche.

If the Lightning earns its place in the sport’s all-time elite by becoming the first three-peat Stanley Cup winner since the 1980-83 New York Islanders, the team will have earned it.

***

4. THE LIGHTNING’S ARC HAS MUCH IN COMMON WITH COLORADO’S

The teams are not mirror images, but they share traits.

Both teams began their building by scraping the bottom of the standings for a while. For the Lightning, their nadir was in 2008. And both teams struck gold with the high picks they earned by lousy seasons.

For the Lightning, the first fruits were the selections of Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Stamkos was the top pick; Hedman went No. 2 overall. Like the players the Avs took in the same spots a few years later — Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2 overall, 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1 overall, 2013), Stamkos and Hedman were everything the franchise hoped they could be: not only stars, but leaders.

Of course, no club is built on top-2 picks alone. The Lightning’s drafts were as productive as Joe Sakic’s here. Tampa Bay found Nikita Kucherov in the second round of the 2011 draft. The 2012 draft brought Vasilevskiy with the No. 19 overall pick. The 2014 draft yielded center Brayden Point in the third round. Those pieces fit just like Mikko Rantanen (No. 10 overall, 2015), Cale Makar (No. 4 overall, 2017) and Alex Newhook (No. 16 overall, 2019).

Even a key playoff injury has a mirror, as both teams lost centers for substantial amounts of time, leaving them touch-and-go for the Final. Just as the Avs coped without Nazem Kadri against Edmonton, Tampa Bay has played without Point for the last two rounds. The Bolts expect Point back at some juncture in the Final. But as with Kadri, the question is when.

The biggest difference? The Lightning found their goalie. The Avs are hoping for just enough from Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz to complement the awesome firepower on the rest of the roster.

It would surprise no one if this iteration of the Avs wins multiple titles, just as the Lightning has. The question is this: Will this series be like the 2015 Final was for the Lightning — one of a series of steps in a team’s evolution to greatness? Or will this be the Avs’ culmination, winning a Cup in their first Final opportunity?

***

5. THE LIGHTNING IS DRACULA …

… in that a foe must drive the stake into their collective heart to kill them off in the playoffs.

Ask the Maple Leafs and Rangers. Both clubs had the Bolts on the ropes. With a 3-2 series lead, Toronto had a 3-2 third-period edge in Game 6 of their first-round series. With a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers had the Bolts in a 2-0 hole midway through the second period of Game 3. In both cases, the Lightning escaped — and went on a subsequent tear. Their Game 6 comeback against Toronto launched a 6-game winning streak that engulfed Florida in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bolts’ rally against the Rangers propelled them on a four-game streak that turned a 2-0 series deficit into a 4-2 win.

Like the Avs, the Lightning find postseason heroes throughout the roster. With center Brayden Point injured, others, like Ondrej Palat and trade-deadline pickup Nick Paul, seized the moment. Paul had both goals in the Lightning’s first-round, Game 7 win at Toronto. Palat had two game-winning goals in the final two minutes of contests in the Eastern Conference Finals — Games 3 and 5.

The Avs must always be wary of a Lightning strike — sometimes coming when their hopes appear dimmest. If Colorado lets up — even for a second — Tampa Bay is the best of its era at pouncing.

Florida learned that in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. When two Panthers closed on Kucherov behind their net in the final seconds of the third period with overtime imminent, they left Ross Colton open just outside of the crease. Kucherov flicked a no-look pass to Colton, who one-timed the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky with 3.8 seconds remaining. Two games remained in the series. But the Presidents’ Trophy winners were effectively finished right then and there.

That was a game the Lightning appeared to have business winning. But the Bolts blocked 24 shots and Vasilevskiy stopped 35 more, leaving them in position to pounce when the Panthers made their fatal mistake.

Both the Lightning and Avalanche are capable of taking any opponent’s surge and squashing it. That’s what makes this Final arguably the most captivating in recent NHL history.

In the next two weeks, a truly great team will have finally met its match.

***

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