The Lightning Are The Best Team Left In The NHL
No series in the NHL’s second round proved to be as anticlimactic as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s five-game dispatching of the Boston Bruins. After spotting the Bruins the opener, the Lightning simply took over —the one exception being Game 4 where it took a horrid officials’ no-call to bail them out and as a New Englander I don’t plan on getting over it anytime soon. But otherwise, Tampa Bay was simply faster and deeper with more consistent goaltending. And they are the best team left in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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Offensive depth was the defining feature of Tampa Bay’s success throughout a regular season where they went 54-23-5 and compiled the third-best record in the NHL. Nikita Kucherov led the way with 39 goals/61 assists in the regular season, but he had plenty of help. The great Steven Stamkos scored 27 goals, Brayden Point added 32 and Tyler Johnson scored 21. Stamkos and Johnson are capable of going even higher and Stamkos demonstrated in Game 4 of the Boston series that giving him a clean look at the net is still as sure a goal as there is in the sport.
It added up to the most prolific goal-scoring offense in the league and the Lightning have kept it going during the playoffs. The first-round series with New Jersey was the Kucherov show. His 24 shots, five goals and five assists were all easily the most on the team.
Against Boston, the Lightning unveiled their balance. Seven players took anywhere from 11 to 17 shots over the course of the five games. Point was the leading scorer, with 3 goals/4 assists and was the one who seemed to be in the middle of so many key moments. Ondrej Palat lit the lamp three more times himself. Tampa Bay simply attacked the net against Boston, outshooting them 154-133 and it still seems to me as if a Lightning player was constantly beating a Bruin to the right spot in front of the net for a clean look from close range.
It’s nice to be able to play wide-open and unleash offensive talent, but that also means you have better have a goaltender who can stop the rushes that inevitably come back the other way. And it’s 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy that has stood tall all year long.
Vasilevskiy was among the top goalies in the league during the regular season, even as his team allowed more shots on goal then all but nine teams in the 31-team NHL. He stepped it up even more in the playoffs. Tampa Bay was actually outshot by New Jersey in the first round, 171-168 over the course of the five games, but Vasilevskiy was locked on with a 94.1% save rate.
Tampa Bay is now poised for their third Eastern Conference finals in four years and aiming for the second Stanley Cup Finals in that same timeframe. In previous years, they’ve been eliminated by the two defining franchises of the decade, the Chicago Blackhawks (2015 Finals) and Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 Eastern finals). No team with that kind of pedigree is left in this year’s postseason. It’s all there for the Lightning to win their first Stanley Cup since 2004.