Sports

How Do the Tampa Bay Lightning Keep Doing This?

Their astonishing run at history feels impossible.

Three Lightning arm in arm and smiling on the ice
Nikita Kucherov with his teammates after scoring a goal against the Florida Panthers in the third period in Game 3 in the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena, in Tampa Bay.  Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA Today Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning should be at the end of their fuel tank. The reason is not that they have won the past two Stanley Cups, at least not exactly. It is that they have played so, so, so many games to win those championships—so many more than anyone else. In the past three regular and postseasons, they have played 267 games, or 19 more than any other team in hockey and 30 more than anyone else left in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

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In these three years, the Lightning have played a quarter-season’s worth of more hockey than anyone else. Their roster is not exactly the same as it was in 2020 or 2021, but the core of the team is still in place. Not every player played every game those two years (star winger Nikita Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 regular season before returning for the playoffs), but still, the Lightning have played a lot of hockey and put a lot of tread on their tires. There are not a lot of cases like Tampa Bay’s, but that’s supposed to catch up with a team. After the Pittsburgh Penguins went back-to-back in 2016 and ’17, they pushed into the second round in 2018 against the Washington Capitals, whom they’d beaten in the previous two playoffs. The Penguins had also played way more games than anyone else. Washington beat them in overtime to clinch a six-game series, ending Pittsburgh’s three-peat bid. “Maybe we were a little bit tired,” Evgeni Malkin said afterward. Or maybe the good fortune any team needs to win a Stanley Cup just ran out. The Penguins hit a post in the same overtime that eliminated them. Nobody has won three Cups in a row since the New York Islanders won four from 1980 to ’83.

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Something—maybe dead legs, maybe puck luck—is supposed to catch up with the Lightning at some point. They should get tired, because they have played so many damned games. Something should trip them up, because it’s hard to make the game develop your way three years in a row. But none of that has happened, and terrifyingly, Tampa Bay might be gaining strength. In a seven-game, first-round series win over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Lightning were at death’s door before the Leafs did what they always do. The Lightning won Game 6 on a counterattack after the Leafs’ best player fell down while looking for a pass at center ice, then they eked out a Game 7 road win on the strength of two goals from depth forward Nick Paul. Then the Lightning played their local rivals, the Florida Panthers, who had won the Presidents’ Trophy with 122 points in the regular season. The Panthers had looked a little bit off in their own first-round win over the Capitals, but the Lightning sweeping Florida out of the playoffs in four games was still a tour de force. Tampa Bay did not look like a team making a last stand, even as the Panthers spent the series controlling the puck the majority of the time.

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The Lightning aren’t inevitable to three-peat, but it might yet turn out that they are unkillable. They need eight wins to stay at the mountaintop, and whoever they play next (either the Carolina Hurricanes or New York Rangers) is locked in a second-round series that will continue for at least several more days. There just isn’t that much time left for things to start bouncing against the Lightning in a way they haven’t in three years, though of course they could. Or the Lightning could be such a special team that they’ll just never wear down amid all of this hockey. Either way, they are making an astonishing run at something that’s been elusive in the modern NHL.

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The biggest thing in the Lightning’s favor is that their version of luck isn’t really luck. There’s nothing accidental about it. Sure, they battled the Leafs to basically a draw (Toronto scored 24 goals in seven games to Tampa Bay’s 23), and it takes good fortune to be the team that wins a seven-gamer in any circumstance. But what the Lightning did to the Panthers was something more cruel. Florida controlled the puck for basically the entire series, using a furious forecheck and a lot of skill to snatch that little piece of rubber and play keepaway. To counter them, the Lightning did an inspired job to keep the Panthers away from Andrei Vasilevskiy, the goaltender who backstopped each of the past two Cup winners. Despite controlling 58 percent of the shot attempts in the series at even strength, the Panthers only had 47 percent of the “high-danger” scoring chances, as defined by analytics tracking site Natural Stat Trick.

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When pucks did get through, Vasilevskiy was almost impenetrable, as is his custom at this point. He led the NHL in goals saved above expectation, a measure of goalie performance based on where opposing chances are coming from, in each of the past two playoffs. He is doing it again this year: In 11 playoff games, he’s stopped 11 more shots than the numbers would expect from a typical goalie, per Money Puck. He is Tampa’s greatest, most consistent advantage.

On the one hand, the Lightning just got outskated and out-puck-possessed by the best team in the league for four games. On the other hand, they were deliberate about pushing that team away from their goalie, who happens to be the best goalie in the world. And, to be sure, this is pretty much what Vasilevskiy does. Goaltending is a playoff wild card, and fans and media will often use a goalie’s performance as a data point to suggest a team’s “good luck” (if a team gets outshot and wins) or “bad luck” (if a team controls the puck and loses). But there’s nothing lucky about it when your goalie is Vasilevskiy. He is a playoff terminator, and the Lightning knew what they were getting when they gave him a mega-extension after 2019, before he’d won his first Stanley Cup but right after he’d won the Vezina Trophy.

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Vasilevskiy’s brilliance does not explain why the team in front of him isn’t burning out after the last two long runs. Here is a theory that might, though: In addition to boasting what looks like superior conditioning, the Lightning have adopted a tweaked playing style that is probably a little bit easier on their legs. The Cup winners of 2020 and ’21 played a beautiful, freewheeling brand of hockey that emphasized giving their most skilled forwards (Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point) a head of steam and letting them carry the puck. A good illustration was their Game 1 win against the Panthers in last year’s playoffs. It was a 5–4 barnburner that turned on a breakaway goal by Point, who’d blown out of his defensive zone while the puck was still there and caught a long pass before depositing the puck into the back of the net.

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This year, at least to my eye, the Lightning are deploying a more suffocating style. The focus is on insulating Vasilevskiy and finding offense when it comes to them. They have blocked 187 shots in 11 games, the highest per-game rate in the playoffs. Point has missed four games. Kucherov and Stamkos have four goals apiece, but it’s been the Lightning’s third and fourth lines that have done the best job controlling the puck and keeping it away from Vasilevskiy. The Lightning have scored ugly goal after ugly goal, and the good thing for them is that those count just the same as pretty ones. In the clinching Game 4 against Florida, while the Lightning were being outshot 39–18, Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky misplayed a long shot. The Lightning crashed the net until the puck was in it to go up 1–0. The Panthers never scored.

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The Lightning can of course still do some globetrotting and score beauties on the rush. Some of the goals that Stamkos and Kucherov created against the Panthers were incredibly picturesque. Like this one:

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And especially this one:

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So, it is best not to overstate what the Lightning have changed: They are still the Lightning, and they still have some of the most skilled players in the world. But they have also locked things down when necessary. That has helped take pressure off of their stars, including the one who minds the net. They might not have the legs right now to put on a skill clinic all night, but they certainly have the energy to protect Vasilevskiy, swarm the net like jackals, and counterpunch with high-end scoring talent when the opportunity arises.

It’s a hockey truism that a team needs to “learn how to win” before it can make a deep run. The Lightning are fresh off two of those. Nobody will ever accuse them of not understanding what it takes. And in one way, they are following the same playbook they have already followed to great success. In another, they are playing differently now. Maybe the only thing more impressive than learning how to win is relearning it when circumstances dictate an adjustment in approach.

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