The Tampa Bay Lightning last season accomplished something special becoming the third different team in 30 years to capture consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
This season, the Lightning seek to land in legendary status by winning three consecutive championships, which has not been done since the dynasty days of the New York Islanders when they won four consecutive Cups from 1980-83.
But so much has changed for Tampa Bay since capturing those two Cups in the span of 282 days between September 28, 2020, and July 7, 2021.
The forward depth that proved so valuable to the team’s success for two straight postseasons was lost due to salary cap constraints. Blake Coleman landed in Calgary. Barclay Goodrow went to the New York Rangers. Yann Gourde was selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. Tyler Johnson was dealt to Chicago.
Tampa Bay’s top-end talent remains elite, with Steven Stamkos enjoying the best season of his 14-year career after finishing with 106 points, eight more than his previous career-high, while notching his sixth career 40-goal season.
Nikita Kucherov, despite missing 35 games, still registered his seventh consecutive 25-goal season and averaged 4.4 points per 60 minutes, the second-best rate of his career only behind his MVP season in 2018-19. Kucherov’s 1.47 points per game was second in the league only behind Connor McDavid.
Defenseman Victor Hedman had one of the quietest 80-point seasons by a blueliner after finishing with a career-high 85 points while also setting career bests in goals (20) and assists (65), having the best single-season for points by a Swedish defenseman in NHL history.
With that elite core — which also includes Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Anthony Cirelli — still in place, Tampa Bay still has a formidable group up front.
But what they don’t have is the third line of Goodrow, Gourde, and Coleman that played such a vital role in the team’s success. The Identity Line took on the important 5-on-5 minutes not only as a matchup line, but in taking the opening faceoff in nearly every period through two postseasons as well as in the final minute while protecting leads.
Tampa Bay has been searching for that sort of a line since before the training camp opened, moving, mixing and matching personnel around throughout the season looking for the right feel.
But It just never felt right, so at the trade deadline, with very little flexibility to make any moves, general manager Julien BriseBois went out and made a pair of deals he hopes provides some of that missing juice in the Tampa Bay lineup, adding Brandon Hagel from Chicago and Nick Paul from Ottawa.
The Lightning sent a pair of first-round picks plus rookies Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk in the deal for Hagel and Mathieu Joseph to Ottawa for Paul.
The top-nine forwards now have a different look and feel than they did for most of the season.
Paul has seen time on all three lines, including playing a few games with Point and Kucherov, and looked comfortable wherever – and with whoever – he’s played since arriving. A big, power forward said to have a playoff-style game – though he’s never played in a postseason game at the NHL level – he’s shown more skill to his game with five goals and 14 points in 21 games with Tampa Bay.
The Lightning have also moved Hagel – who was a top-six forward playing with Patrick Kane in Chicago — up and down the third lines, in an offensive role and on the checking line, to various degrees of success with four goals and seven points in 22 games as he continues to adjust to a new role.
As the Lightning enter the 2022 playoffs, they have four new skaters who have not been a part of either of the past two Stanley Cup championship teams: Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Paul, and Hagel (Zach Bogosian returns after being a part of the 2020 title team).
With that strong core in place – oh, yeah, we didn’t even mention Conn Smythe goaltender Andrei Vasileskiy, yet, whoops – the Lightning hope to rekindle the recipe that led them to back-to-back titles with a few different ingredients.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The season might have easily gone off the rails before it even got started in the opening week of the season. Not only did Tampa Bay fall completely flat on opening night against Pittsburgh when emotions should have been running high on banner-raising night, but in the third game of the season, Kucherov went down with an injury related to the hip surgery that cost him the 2021 regular season. Kucherov required a core muscle surgery that he underwent in late October and kept him out 10 weeks.
In November, Point was lost to a shoulder injury that kept him out six weeks, leaving the Lightning without their top two offensive players for an extended time. Yet, in the 14 games Point was out, Tampa Bay posted a record of 11-2-1.
Tampa Bay remained consistent throughout the season, not dropping consecutive games in regulation until after the team returned from the extended break and stuttered schedule endured in February and the dog days of March hit. A .500 stretch from the middle of March until mid-April dropped the Lightning from challenging Florida for the top spot in the Atlantic Division into staving off the Boston Bruins to maintain the third spot and avoid dropping into a wild card position.
Tampa Bay ended the season with 51 wins and 108 points, both the third-most in franchise history.
STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
A – Andrei Vasilevskiy was only mentioned in passing, but in reality, his presence is the most notable in this series as the backbone of the team’s accomplishments over the past two seasons. The former first-round pick in 2012 has played every minute of every playoff game over the course of the past two postseasons. In each of the past five playoff series, he has posted a shutout in the clinching game, including twice in the Stanley Cup Final — the only goaltender in league history to accomplish such a feat.
This season, he won 39 games, tying for the league lead. Vasilevskiy has either led the league or tied for the lead in victories for five consecutive seasons to set a post-expansion league record and only the third goaltender to do so – Terry Sawchuk and Clint Benedict are the other two.
B – The status of Brayden Point is a bit of a question mark as the series opens. Point sat out two of the final six games of the season, indicating there is some sort of an issue that is limiting his play. He had just one goal in the final 12 games of the season and no 5-on-5 goals since April 1. Point has led the league in playoff goals each of the past two seasons and his speed on the rush backs off defenders to create space not only for himself but his linemates as well.
C – Matching up against Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews might be how this series is ultimately decided. Tampa Bay doesn’t have the Gourde line to take on the consistent defensive assignments as previous postseasons. In the final few games of the season, the line with Killorn-Cirelli-Hagel has been used in that role the most, including in the final regular-season meeting between the two teams when Cirelli’s line saw the matchup against John Tavares, Michael Bunting and Marner (with Matthews out).
And the other side of that matchup is, how often can Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe can get his top line out against Tampa Bay’s fourth line of Pat Maroon, Bellemare, and Perry, which speed-wise is a mismatch in the Maple Leafs’ favor.
D – How physical will this series turn? The games ramp up in the postseason and intimidation can still be a factor. Two years ago, both these teams were built on speed, skill, and offense – neither made it out of the first round. In the past two seasons, both teams tried to add some of those other elements to the lineup – Tampa Bay brought in Maroon and Goodrow, Toronto added Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds. It’s worked for the Lightning, but the Leafs still have not been able to advance out of the first round.
Maroon and Simmonds will be at the center of that battle after the two waged a war of smack talk in the two meetings in April before eventually dropping the gloves. Both players will attempt to give their team an edge by any means necessary.