DETROIT — With 12 games to play, the Lightning has all but locked up the Presidents’ Trophy, first seed in the Eastern Conference and almost anything else you can win in the regular season.
One question remains: Can Tampa Bay break the wins record? Detroit won 62 games in 1995-96. The Lightning needs to win 10 of its final 12 games to win 63.
Tampa Bay has won at a rate of 75 percent this year, so would need to pick up that pace to break the record.
At least three people with crucial roles from that ’96 team watch most of the Lightning games: former captain Steve Yzerman, former coach Scotty Bowman and former general manager Jim Devellano.
Currently, Bowman is a senior advisor of hockey operations with Chicago and Devellano is senior vice president with Detroit. Both spend their winters in the Tampa area and attend most Lightning home games. That gives them a unique perspective on the two teams. Yzerman has not spoken to the media since stepping down as general manager of the Lightning and declined to do so for this story.
“The teams are equal,” Devellano said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they catch our record or surpass it, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did. I’m kinda rooting for them.”
In some ways, the teams are mirror images: A captain nearing mid-career (Steven Stamkos is 29, Yzerman was 30) who worries less about scoring goals than he did as a younger player; a stud defenseman from Sweden (Victor Hedman, Nicklas Lidstrom) on his way to the Hall of Fame; a young goaltender (Vasilevskiy is 24, Chris Osgood was 23) who surpassed his veteran mentor; a Russian forward (Sergei Fedorov and Nikita Kucherov) topping 100 points.
Devellano also sees similarities, noting that each team has three or four superstars (Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom on Detroit; Kucherov, Stamkos, Vasilevskiy on Tampa Bay, good goaltending and deep lineups (14 players with at least 10 goals on the Red Wings; 10 on the Lightning)
“And there we are,” Devellano said. “At the end of the day, you can sum it up: They both had tons of talent. That’s what it comes down to.”
Bowman pointed out there’s situational similarity as well. Both teams came off seasons in which they felt they had underperformed in the playoffs. In 1995, Detroit made it to the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to New Jersey. The Lightning gave up a 3-2 series lead to lose to Washington in the Eastern Conference Finals last year.
Both these teams excelled in special teams. Rarely is a team at the top of the league in both power play and penalty kill but these teams were two of the exceptions. Detroit was second in the league with a 21.3 power-play percentage and first with a 88.3 success rate on the kill. The Lightning is currently first in both at 28.5 percent on the power play and 85.6 on the penalty kill. (Power plays in general have gotten much better. Where 20 percent used to be one of the best, it’s now the league average).
Bowman suggested there might be a difference in offensive production, as “this team here can really score goals.” But his team actually scored more. The Lightning has scored 266 goals and is on pace for 311 this season. Detroit had 325 that year.
Bowman coached other teams with more goals. He led the helm in Montreal when the Canadiens had a dynasty in the ‘70s. The 1976-77 team owns the points record at 132 and scored 387 goals in 80 games.
Lightning analyst Brian Engblom pointed out that Montreal team would probably also have the wins record if overtime had existed then. As it was, the Canadiens finished with 60 wins and 12 ties. He likes the odds they could have come up with three wins in those 12 games.
But what makes sports debatable is the apples and oranges debates of different eras. Records aren’t adjusted for the differences.
Both the ’96 Red Wings and this year’s Lightning play in the overtime era and in a 82-game season. However, we’ll never know what Detroit could have done with a three-on-three overtime.
None of these teams ever truly aimed for the record.
“We never really went for a record any more than I believe Tampa is,” Devellano said. “It just happened. We won four out of every five games, I guess. We were just that good. Tampa is just that good. The record just sort of came.”
He went on to say that the Red Wings took pride in the record, and in the Presidents’ Trophy, but neither was enough in the end. Colorado, a team Detroit defeated three times during the regular season — including a 7-0 shutout of the Avalanche in March — defeated the Red Wings in six games in the Western Conference Finals.
“We were aware fairly or unfairly, that unless we won the Cup, it would be a grave, grave disappointment,” Devellano said. “And we didn’t win the Cup. That summer, when we should have been full of joy, I can’t tell you we were real down, but we didn’t win the Stanley Cup.”
Devellano believes Tampa Bay is the “real deal.” For the Lightning to lose it will be an upset, but he knows upsets do happen. That’s what happened to the Red Wings, after all.
In the meantime, Devellano will keep showing up at Amalie Arena, rooting for the Lighting to beat his record and then to go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at [email protected] Follow @dianacnearhos.