Lightning looking like team capable of Stanley Cup three-peat
Winning the Stanley Cup requires a perfect storm of circumstances that include a talented roster, that is healthy, that is playing well at the right time, gets the right matchups, and finds a little bit of well timed luck in the playoffs to get through what are almost certainly tightly contested best-of-seven series.
Having all of that happen one time is a remarkably difficult achievement.
Doing it all again -- and having it all happen again -- the following year and winning it again is, obviously, even more difficult.
Having it all happen three years in row is something else entirely. There is a reason it has happened just two times in the post-Original Six era, and not since the early 1980s New York Islanders.
But if any team is capable of doing what seems to be the impossible, it might very well be the Tampa Bay Lightning who are not showing any signs of slowing down no matter how much their roster changes. It is not exactly a surprise that Lightning are once again one of the league’s best teams because they have been for the past seven years. During that stretch no team has won more regular season or playoff games, while they have been in the Conference Final five times, the Stanley Cup Final three times, and have obviously won each of the past two Cups.
Entering the week the Lightning have the league’s second-best points percentage (.724, trailing only the Carolina Hurricanes at .741) and are 17-3-3 in their past 23 games after a slow start to the regular season.
[NHL Power Rankings: Golden Knights climbing; Lightning second]
Even more, every objective metric we have to measure team performance says they are one of the league’s best teams.
Their 5-on-5 possession, scoring chance, and expected goal numbers are all elite, as is their 5-on-5 goal differential.
If you wanted to find a flaw, their special teams are not great at the moment. But as long as the 5-on-5 play keeps being dominant there is reason to believe they can continue to overcome those struggles (and improve on them).
But what is so impressive about the Lightning’s current success is how different the roster is right now as compared to the playoffs.
Because of the salary cap and expansion draft the Lightning had to let several key players go this offseason. Tyler Johnson was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap clearing move, while their entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yannie Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow (one of their best lines over the past two years and one of the most effective lines in the NHL) left in free agency and the expansion draft.
That is a lot of talent and key contributors to lose in one offseason. For most teams, it would put a major dent in what they are capable of.
The Lightning have not really slowed down. It is not just the players they lost to other teams, either. Nikita Kucherov, their top offensive player, has played in just three games this season and none since the first week of the season. Brayden Point, one of their other top players, has appeared in just 16 games and none over the past month. Since Point went out of the lineup (meaning no Point and no Kucherov in the lineup) the Lightning are 10-2-1, which is tied for the best points percentage in the league (.808, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins) during that stretch.
What has allowed them to stay on top of the league with so many key contributors out of the lineup or now playing for other teams?
For starters, they still have a couple of superstars in their lineup. Steven Stamkos is healthy and playing at an elite level still to help carry the offense. Victor Hedman is still one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL. Along with those two it still remains an incredibly deep organization because their second-tier complementary players are still excellent. Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Mikhail Sergachev are all having excellent seasoans.
The biggest factor, though, is the fact the Lightning still have Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Not only is Vasilevskiy the best goalie in the world, he is one of the best and most valuable players, regardless of position, in the entire NHL. He is durable, dominant, and a game-changer every game he appears in.
Since the start of the 2017-18 season the Lightning have a 165-55-14 record in games where he is the goalie of record, while owns a .923 all situations save percentage (tops in the league) and a .929 even-strength save percentage (tops in the league). That record for Vasilevskiy would average out to a 127 point pace over 82 games.
(The Lightning play at a 100-point pace over that same time period when any other goalie other Vasilevskiy is the goalie of record, while they actually have a losing record over the past three years)
None of that takes into account his postseason performance in recent years which is equally dominant. The combination of having the league’s best team and the league’s best goalie makes the Lightning a terrifying matchup for pretty much anybody because they not only have very few flaws, they have a goalie that can consistently mask the flaws they do have.
Given his individual performance and the impact he has on the Lightning and the outcome of games there is a strong argument to be made he is one of the two or three most valuable players in the entire league.
This is the biggest reason the Lightning might have a legitimate shot to actually pull off the impossible and win a third straight Cup.
If you have the best goalie, you always have a chance.
Especially when you have an elite two-way defender can play half of the game in front of him.
And when you keep playing at an elite level without your two best offensive players who will eventually be returning to the lineup and be ready for the playoffs.
Obviously a lot still has to happen for the Lightning to get back to that point where they can win another championship and pull off the NHL’s first three-peat in over 35 years. But everything in the way they play, the players they have, and where they have superstars gives them one heck of an opportunity.