A recent history of Tampa Bay Lightning’s quiet playoff exits

Watch as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning shake hands after the Blue Jackets sweep and win their first playoff series in franchise history.

The Tampa Bay Lightning busted a lot of brackets Tuesday night by losing 7-3 and getting unceremoniously swept aside by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

This was not the biggest upset in NHL history – prior to the cap era days of parity the point differentials between first-round opponents could be cavernous.

Take, for instance, the 1982 series between Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers and Marcel Dionne’s Los Angeles Kings, who finished 48 points behind their first-round opponent. That series included the Miracle on Manchester in Game 3 where the Kings overcame a 5-0 deficit in the third period en route to a 6-5 overtime win. Edmonton won Game 4, but the Kings closed out the upset with a 7-4 win in Game 5 of the best-of-5 series.

But Columbus’s win may very well be the biggest upset in the salary cap era. Tampa Bay tied the NHL record with 62 wins in a season and, while the Presidents’ Trophy isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement come playoff time, at least the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings (the last team to win 62 in a season) went to the conference final.

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For a comparably surprising upset in this era, we’ll go back to the 2010 first-round series between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens. With 313 goals, those Capitals were the best offensive team under the salary cap until this year’s Lightning eclipsed them with 319 goals. Those Caps were also 33 points better than their first-round opponent (Tampa finished 30 ahead of Columbus) and finished strong, with a 13-2-5 record in March and April. Montreal, meantime, had won just three of their final 11 regular-season games.

With Carey Price watching from the bench, Jaroslav Halak stood on his head, posted a .939 save percentage and led the Canadiens to the improbable win. That Capitals squad, at least up until Tuesday, was the best team to not win the Cup in this era.

And even still, at least that series went the full seven games.

The troubling thing for these Lightning is how they’ve bowed out of the playoffs in recent seasons. Usually it’s happened later than the first four games, but rather than just look at this collapse in a vacuum it’s worth examining what’s happened to the team in the post-season under Jon Cooper.

This year’s exit is by far the worst of the bunch, but it’s not the first time they went out with a whimper.

2014: TAMPA SWEPT BY MONTREAL IN ROUND 1

Although 2014 was another tough first-round exit, this was totally different. The Lightning finished second in the Atlantic Division and just one point ahead of their first-round opponent from Montreal. It was also their return to the post-season after two years of missing out.

This was an Olympic year that led to a falling out between Martin St. Louis and general manager Steve Yzerman over the former’s disappointment of being left off Team Canada. A year after winning the Art Ross Trophy, St. Louis was dealt to the New York Rangers for a package that included Ryan Callahan, who is still with the team today, and a couple picks – one of which became Anthony Cirelli.

That deadline deal itself changed the trajectory for Tampa Bay, but it wasn’t the worst omen. Goalie Ben Bishop, who finished third in Vezina voting, became injured near the end of the regular season, so come playoff time Tampa Bay turned to backup Anders Lindback to hold the fort.

Winning it all wasn’t the most likely outcome for this team, but there were still reasons to believe they could win a round or two. Steven Stamkos, who missed the Olympics and most of the season to injury, did return for the final 20 regular-season games, scoring eight goals and 17 points. They were the fifth-highest scoring team in the second half and finished the regular season 12-3-2 in their last 17 games, scoring 54 goals.

In Game 1, the Lightning mustered just 16 shots in regulation, but still managed to push it to overtime despite Montreal carrying the play with 35 shots. Dale Weise scored the overtime winner for Montreal. In Game 2 on home ice, the Lightning allowed two second- and third-period goals to trail 4-0 in the final five minutes. Teddy Purcell’s goal ended Carey Price’s shutout bid, but the Lightning trailed the series 2-0 heading to the Bell Centre.

The Lightning never led in Games 3 or 4, but did mount a third period comeback in Game 4 to recover from a two-goal deficit and tie it up with 13 and a half minutes remaining. But a costly tripping penalty by Cedric Paquette led to a Max Pacioretty power-play marker in the final minute of regulation to seal Tampa Bay’s fate.

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2015: LOSS TO CHICAGO IN THE STANLEY CUP FINAL

It’s a trivial thing to nitpick a team that went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final – you get that far and a bad break here or there could turn the tides against you enough to make a loss inevitable. This was a successful season for the franchise, but again, it’s about how they lost.

These Lightning finished second in the Atlantic with 50 wins and 108 points – two shy of Montreal for the division title. There were some key developments for them this season, though, as they finished up with the league’s best offence.

Nikita Kucherov, a sophomore, scored 29 goals and 65 points, up from nine and 18 as a rookie. Tyler Johnson, in his second full season, posted a career-best 72 points. UFA signing Anton Stralman was a big addition to the team’s weakness on the back end and Bishop, one of three 40-win goalies on the season, was healthy for (most of) the playoff run. We’d find out after that he sustained a groin injury in the conference final, but his play wasn’t a negative force in the final.

The Lightning actually had a 2-1 series lead over Chicago, scoring eight goals in the process.

But Tampa Bay never led a game in the series after that. Their offence sputtered as they managed just two goals in Games 4-6, with the power play going 0-for its final six in that span. In the deciding game, the Lightning managed just four shots in the first period and seven in the second while Chicago went on to win the Stanley Cup with a 2-0 victory.

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2016: LOSS TO PITTSBURGH IN THE CONFERENCE FINAL

The 2016 playoffs were largely a success for the Lightning once more, getting all the way to the final four teams. But this troubling trend continued.

In this season, Tampa Bay finished second in the Atlantic again with 46 wins and 97 points. And although they drew Detroit, the third seed in the division, in Round 1, the Lightning actually had the sixth-most points in the Eastern Conference.

Kucherov was the team’s highest scorer for the first time, while Victor Hedman cracked the top 10 in Norris Trophy voting for the first time (finishing seventh). This team included the likes of Jonathan Drouin and Jonathan Marchessault before they hit their stride in the league, but the Lightning fell from the league’s best offence to its 12th with 244 goals. This time, defence and goaltending were much improved, with Tampa finishing as a top-10 team in shots against and Bishop getting voted the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy with a .926 save percentage.

The thing is, when the playoffs got going so did their offence. Through the first two rounds the Lightning scored 30 times in 10 games, which gave them the second-best goals per game rate for any team that won a series. The defence was still humming and allowed less than two goals per game through the first two rounds.

Against the Penguins in the conference final, the Lightning opened with a 3-1 road win in which they were outshot 35-20. Bishop went down to injury and Andrei Vasilevskiy came in for the rest of the series.

The Penguins won the next two games, but then the Lightning fought back. A 4-3 win on home ice was followed by a thrilling 4-3 overtime win in Pittsburgh that Tampa Bay had to overcome 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to accomplish. Heading home for Game 6, it was starting to look promising for Tampa Bay.

But, once again, the Lightning failed to get a lead at all the rest of the series. They fell behind 3-0 in Game 6 and dropped that game 5-2, then fell 2-1 in Game 7 when they were outshot 39-17.

2018: LOSS TO WASHINGTON IN CONFERENCE FINAL

They say you sometimes have to lose before you can win, so after all these failures as the team was building up its experience, 2018 looked like the season they might finally break through. It followed a season where the Lightning missed the playoffs altogether – due in part to Steven Stamkos’ season-ending injury in November – but the 2017-18 version of the Lightning had it all.

First, their 54 wins were, at the time, tied for the fourth-most of the salary cap era. The team mustered 290 goals, which led the league and was the fifth-highest of the salary cap era. Kucherov hit 100 points for the first time, Vasilevskiy led the league in wins and was eighth in save percentage at .920 and Hedman won his first Norris. Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde were the players who burst onto the scene with 60-plus point seasons, while the trade deadline acquisitions of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller from the Rangers was a home run in every way.

Even through the first two rounds of the playoffs, all indications were that Tampa Bay was a runaway train that couldn’t be stopped. It took them just 10 games to get through both New Jersey and Boston and they scored at least three goals in eight of those games (and at least four goals in half of them). Washington, meanwhile, had battled harder to get to the conference final and overcame series deficits in both Rounds 1 and 2.

Tampa Bay was outscored 10-4 in dropping Games 1 and 2, but they scored 11 total goals over the next three games and won all of them. Now on the brink of getting back to the Stanley Cup Final again, what happened next seemed the most unlikely of outcomes.

No one would have predicted, after all this offensive success, that Tampa Bay’s goal 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5 would be their last of the series. The rest of the way Washington outscored Tampa Bay 9-0, shutting them out in both Games 6 and 7 to move on to face the Golden Knights.

2019: THE BOTTOM FALLS OUT OF AN HISTORIC TEAM

This year’s loss was just the latest. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1, and then blowing it to lose in regulation, Tampa Bay never led a game in the series again. In Game 4, with everything on the line, they were down 2-0 before it was four minutes old.

After Tuesday’s loss, Cooper was asked if he thought there was a fundamental flaw with the team when it comes to handling adversity in the post-season.

“We’re expected to go far this year and we go nowhere. 2015 nobody expected us to go anywhere and we went far, with the same core of players,” Cooper said. “You go to a couple conference finals, I can’t sit here and say those are bad efforts. It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to do it consistently and the group’s found a way to do it.

“It’s tough to not be sitting at the end and holding the Stanley Cup, but how many teams have gone through this? They knock at the door, they knock at the door. Look at Washington for example. They had two remarkable years and were bounced in the second round and the year nobody expected them to do anything they won the Stanley Cup. It’s crazy how it works.”

 
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And it would be crazy to expect the Lightning to undergo some great overhaul this off-season. There will be tinkering for sure, but with parity being what it is in the NHL, you just have to keep taking your swings with Tampa Bay’s core until one day, hopefully, they punch through.

Time will tell if these Lightning are like the San Jose Sharks – a squad that seemed to have everything in place for years and even got to one Stanley Cup Final, but could never win it all – or if they’ll eventually put it together for a successful run as Washington did last season.

It’s just troubling to see that when Tampa Bay gets knocked out of the playoffs, they tend to do it rather quietly. Tuesday’s disappointment that completed a four-game sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets will do nothing to quell concerns that they just don’t have the right mix, no matter how many stars are in the lineup.

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