The Missing Rings is a series looking at some of the best teams in NHL history to not win the Stanley Cup. Whether they lose in the first round or game seven of the finals, these great teams have been forgotten because they could not win the big one. For the last installment, the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning are the focus.
The Missing Rings: 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning
The 2017-18 Tampa Bay Lightning were looking to rebound after a disappointing 2016-17 season. Tampa had missed the playoffs but many chalked it up to only having captain Steven Stamkos for 17 games. There were some questions, however. The Lightning moved on from Ben Bishop meaning Andrei Vasilevskiy would be the starter. While Vasilevsky had been pegged for the job, it would still be his first season as the out and out starter in the NHL. Other than that, Tampa looked poised to rebound.
Rebound they did. Tampa went 54-23-5 and 113 points. Nikita Kucherov led the way with 100 points. Stamkos returned to post 86 points. Tampa was a balanced offence with six players scoring at least 20 goals. On the blueline, Victor Hedman posted 63 points and won the Norris Trophy. Vasilevskiy quelled any concerns about how he would handle his first full season as a starter. He went 44-17-3 with eight shutouts, a 2.26 GAA and a .920 save percentage. He was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
In the playoffs, Tampa continued to roll. They made quick work out of New Jersey and Boston, defeating them both in five games. In the Eastern Conference Final, they met the Washington Capitals. Washington surprised the Lightning by taking the first two games in Tampa. Tampa responded with three straight wins and had a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Unfortunately, Washington completely shut down Tampa in games six and seven, winning 3-0 and 4-0 to advance.
The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning entered the season with some unfinished business. Despite having a strong season, Tampa let a huge opportunity slip away in the Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning put the league on notice in 2018-19.
They cut a record pace in the regular season. They matched the 95-96 Detroit Red Wings win total of 62. Tampa posted a 62-16-4 record and 128 points. Again, Nikita Kucherov led the way posting 41 goals and 128 points to lead the league. He was named Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay trophy winner. Stamkos potted 45 goals and 98 points. Third-year man Brayden Point exploded for a 41 goal 92 point season. Nothing seemed to slow Tampa down. Vasilevskiy suffered an injury that kept him out of the lineup for a month. Tampa went 12-3. Vasilevskiy for his part played tremendously posting a 39-10-4 record with six shutouts, a 2.40 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He won the Vezina Trophy this year.
Tampa clinched a playoffs spot on March 8th and clinched the Presidents Trophy with nine games to go in the season. Heading into the playoffs, Tampa was far and away the favourite.
What Went Wrong
This is one of the more bizarre meltdowns. Tampa drew the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Everything started out the way it was supposed to. Tampa jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead. Everything was going the way it was supposed to. OK, so a Nick Foligno second period goal made the game 3-1 going into the third but Columbus was 2-23-1 when trailing going into the third period. Tampa looked poised. Unfortunately, Columbus decided to go against character. The Jackets scored three third period goals to take game one 4-3. It was a stunning turn of events. It also set the tone for the rest of the series.
Tampa was never able to recover from the game one collapse. Game two saw Columbus dominate Tampa 5-1. Frustrations were getting the better of Tampa. Nikita Kucherov took a major boarding penalty at 15:34 of the third period. The hit would lead to Kucherov being suspended for game three. Tampa continued its listless play dropping a 3-1 decision and falling behind 0-3 in the series. Tampa had nothing left, however. They dropped game four 7-3 (although with three empty-net goals) and were swept out of the playoffs. Just like that, this incredible team was eliminated with not even a whimper.
Columbus would be eliminated by eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston. Tampa has had all spring and summer to wonder what happened. The long term impact of this loss can’t be seen just yet as it just happened four months ago. Still, its back to back season’s Tampa has come up short in the post-season after very strong regular seasons. Only time will tell if the Lightning are going to rebound and if they can ever get the playoff monkey off their back. Still, after posting a 62 win season, to be swept out of the playoffs is a bitter pill to swallow. Even more bitter is how poorly they played. Columbus outscored Tampa 19-8 in the sweep.