TAMPA — The best team in hockey. The Tampa Bay Lightning.
Just as I predicted.
Okay, I'll own it. I blew it. I picked the Bruins to win this series. In six games, no less. While I'm off looking for some crow, the Lightning should be off looking for champagne to pour into the Stanley Cup.
It still has lots of work to do before turning the best trophy in sports into a booze holder. It's only halfway there. The games will get tougher. The teams will get better.
But, geez, this sure does look like the best hockey team in the world. How could anyone, ahem, doubt this team after watching it demolish the Bruins in five games?
"That series was a lot closer than the result," Lightning forward Brayden Point said.
No it wasn't. Don't be fooled by close scores and by the polite words coming out of the Lightning locker room. And, true, there was a Lightning overtime victory thrown in there. But make no mistake: the team that deserved to win this series won this series.
Tampa Bay was way better than the Bruins in every way except licking people and whining about the officiating.
Solid goaltending. Timely goals. Big hits. Smothering defense. You name it. Tampa Bay bettered the Bruins in each category. The Lightning also had the best player in Point. The better coach in Jon Cooper. The better, well, everything.
This was a Boston beatdown. Which is funny because Boston gets credit for just how good the Lightning has become.
"I guess I can say it now: Boston set the bar for us," Cooper said.
The Lightning coach looked back to earlier in the season and a couple of Boston victories over the Lightning.
"They literally manhandled us," Cooper said.
A sampling of the reaction to the Lightning's 3-1 victory over Boston, sending Tampa Bay to the Eastern Conference final. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TB_Times @MikeSherman @TBLightning #TBLvsBOS https://t.co/VrP9fYuLHK pic.twitter.com/H7V0PouQQW— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 6, 2018
Tampa Bay knew, deep down, that if it had any designs on a Stanley Cup, at some point it was going to go through Boston. Considering just how dominant the Bruins have been over the Lightning in recent history, that didn't sound fun at all.
"They set a bar for us to be better," Cooper said. "Credit the Boston Bruins for a lot of this because they made us a better hockey team by waxing us during the regular season. And then tried to chase them and then match them and we did."
It matched them, then kicked them to the curb.
The Lightning played about as well as it could have hoped for, about as well as any team can hope for. The only time the Bruins looked like they belonged in this series is when they had the power play. The rest of the time, it was the Lightning doing the manhandling, especially after losing Game 1.
"It woke us up a little bit," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of the Game 1 loss.
Single-game tickets for the Lightning's home games in the Eastern Conference final go on sale Monday at 5 p.m. A special Lightning Text Club pre-sale will start at 2 p.m. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning #NHLPlayoffs @TB_Times https://t.co/8joZ7hyqE1— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 7, 2018
Lightning forward J.T. Miller added, "We could've felt bad for ourselves and we didn't. We moved forward."
Forward at warp speed.
The key to it all was not the scoring machine we're used to seeing from the Lightning, but a defense that suffocated Boston. Tampa Bay didn't give up an even-strength goal in the final three games of the series. Do you have any idea how hard that is to do against a really good team?
It's proof that you're just flat out better.
The Bruins were beaten soundly and systemically, with Lightning depth, Lightning toughness and the kind of emotion that produces playoff wins, not kissing. #TBLightning #GoBolts #Bruins #TBLvsBOS @mjfennelly @TB_Times https://t.co/WCWgFPJpoo— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) May 7, 2018
"It goes to show the commitment we had as a team to defending," Stamkos said. "We know we can put the puck in the net. We've seen that all season. We chose to play the right way and I think our depth really showed in this series."
The Lightning did have star moments from star players. Point, Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov all had huge goals during the series. But others chipped in, too. The third and fourth lines were so good that we should probably stop calling them the third and fourth lines. And every defenseman stood out for making smart plays and not standing out for making dumb ones.
"Everybody's contributing in their own skill set and doing what they need to do," Cooper said.
If the Lightning plays like this, who is going to beat it?
"It's good, but we got to battle through two more series," Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. "We've been here before. Obviously, we're happy with our first two series, but there's so much work left to do and we realize that."
Of course it does. That's what good teams do. And this is a good team. The best in hockey.
Who is fool enough not to believe that?
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.