By Jim Bleyer
The Tampa Bay Lightning can afford to be underachievers during the National Hockey League playoffs which begin tonight.
That’s how powerful a lineup they have put on the ice during the 2018-19 season.
The Bolts tied the NHL record with 62 regular-season victories. They racked up 128 points in the standings ranking them fourth in NHL history. Tampa also becomes just the second team to log 30 road wins in a single season. They have three 40-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point.
Those statistics have dazzled Las Vegas oddsmakers: the Lightning are insane 9-5 favorites to capture a second Stanley Cup. There are 16 teams in the playoffs.
Three teams are listed as co-second choices at 10-1: Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, and Washington Capitals. At 12-1 are Nashville, San Jose, and Las Vegas. The remaining nine teams were tagged with still higher odds.
But the Lightning have stumbled during owner Jeff Vinik’s era while fielding the best club.
At the start of the 2018 season, the Lightning were one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. In fact, they had the same 10-1 odds as the eventual Cup winners, the Washington Capitals. As the season progressed, however, it became clear the Lightning were the class of the Eastern Conference if not the entire league.
The Lightning’s 113 points led the Eastern Conference and its +60 goal differential sat atop both conferences. Going into the playoffs, the Lightning were lukewarm favorites.
The Eastern Conferences finals against Washington spelled disaster. The Lightning did not score in the final 159 minutes, 27 seconds, almost eight periods of hockey. They dropped three of four at home and were outscored 23-15.
The series went the full seven games but it wasn’t that close. Jon Cooper was clearly outcoached.
This is Cooper’s sixth full season in a Stanley Cup quest. Vinik is finishing his tenth season as owner of the franchise. Former General Manager Steve Yzerman, who resigned after last season, is responsible for this season’s stellar lineup. Consider it his ninth season as GM.
Compare the current triumvirate with the threesome responsible for capturing Tampa’s only Stanley Cup in 2004: owner Bill Davidson was in his fifth year, General Manager Jay Feaster guided the franchise in only his second year, and Coach John Tortorella completed his third full year.
Davidson/Feaster/Tortorella prevailed only three years after the last of four consecutive seasons of 50 or more losses. It amounted to a rapid rebuild.
The Lightning were projected to repeat the following year but an NHL lockout dashed those hopes.
Vinik/Yzerman/Cooper lag behind their predecessors but hockey circles are already discussing “dynasty.” However, the Lightning’s reputation as underachievers didn’t begin last season. In 2016-17, they shockingly did not make the playoffs. In 2015-16, the Lightning lost the Eastern Conference finals to the eventual Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins.
Despite prior disappointments, a rabid fan base is fully expecting the Lightning to parade down Channelside Drive as champions.
Tonight’s matchup against Columbus brings its coach, Tortorella, back to the scene of his 2004 triumph. Columbus is not as easy of a first-round opponent as Tampa deserves — especially not from a pure talent standpoint — but its chances at an upset are extremely slim.
The smart money in Vegas loves Tampa as much as Lightning fans. Both forecast the end of several frustrating post-seasons.