For the vast majority of the 2018-19 regular season, the Tampa Bay Lightning weren’t competing against the other 30 teams in the NHL, but against history itself. After posting the most historically dominant season of the salary-cap era — arguably the best campaign of all-time — Tampa Bay operated on a plane so high that it would be almost ludicrous to put the rest of the NHL’s elite in the same echelon.
And in a blink of an eye, all of the above has been rendered moot, with Tampa Bay teetering on the brink of elimination after falling 5-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday night. It was all good just a week ago and yet the Lightning’s deficit proves the futility of the regular season.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are often unforgiving to the NHL’s premier teams and we need not look past recent history to prove this. The past three Presidents’ Trophy winners all burned out during the second round, while the last winner to lift the Cup was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks, who rose atop the league in a lockout-shortened campaign. Perhaps we should’ve known better, but there was a sense of inevitability for the Lightning this year. And while it would be unwise to count out the Lightning, who can strike in — well, you get it — but it does seem like it’s over for a team that was destined for greatness.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Tampa Bay was supposed to be the exception to the rule, after Nikita Kucherov posted the highest-scoring season since the cap was instituted, Steven Stamkos posted a career-best season, Andrei Vasilevskiy emerged as a Vezina Trophy front-runner, to say nothing of their unmatched depth. We’ve gone this far without mentioning Victor Hedman, Anthony Cirelli, and the seamless transition from architect Steve Yzerman to his protege, Julien BriseBois. And yet, none of that will matter if the Lightning can’t rally on the road, rendered a mere footnote in the history books.
The NHL won’t alter their format to the Stanley Cup Playoffs anytime soon. The trophy, borne as a challenge competition across the continent, later evolving into the crown jewel of the NHL, means too much to the lore of the league. Fans of a certain age can’t imagine the playoffs without the MasterCard commercials showcasing the long, treacherous, and ultimately rewarding pathway to lifting the Cup in June.
But if the Lightning don’t emerge victorious, is this year’s winner truly the NHL’s best team? No one in their right mind would advocate for playoff reform in the vein of an English Premier League tabulation simply because Goliath was toppled earlier than expected. Nonetheless, 62 wins has never felt so insignificant.
Tampa Bay defined the regular season, catapulting past their divisional rival Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, leaving them playing for second as soon as the confetti dropped on New Year’s Eve. All of this will be forgotten if the Lightning can’t turn it around, proving the regular season to be ultimately futile, while history marches on without them.
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