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NHL upsets are not a get-out-of-jail free card for Lightning

Just because the other top seeds were bounced does not mean Tampa Bay’s historic collapse is any less stunning.
DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning players make their way off the ice after losing 7-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Columbus.
DIRK SHADD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning players make their way off the ice after losing 7-3 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 4 in the first round of the Stanley Cup Finals Tuesday, April 16, 2019 in Columbus.
Published Apr. 29, 2019

TAMPA – So here’s a fun fact:

The Lightning had a 16-4-1 record in the regular season against the eight teams still left in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a teensy bit better than Tampa Bay did against the rest of the league.

Seems sort of cruel to bring that up now, I know.

But there’s a point, I promise.

You see, it’s important to guard against revisionist history. And the way these NHL playoffs are going, it’s tempting to make the case that Tampa Bay got swept up in a historic wave of postseason upsets.

It’s true, we’ve never seen a first round as vicious as 2019. The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in both the Eastern and Western Conferences were bounced out by wild card teams in utter defiance of the odds.

And maybe, because of that, history will be more forgiving of the dumpster fire that was Tampa Bay’s first-round sweep. After all, Calgary, Washington and Nashville self-immolated too.

But those type of justifications miss the point.

And maybe a lesson, too.

It seems counterintuitive, and maybe even ridiculous, to say that winning too much in the regular season is a bad thing. And that’s certainly not what I’m suggesting.

But there is more than a decade of evidence that suggests the number of victories in the NHL regular season has less correlation with postseason success than you might expect.

By the end of next month, a No. 1 seed in either conference will have won only one of the last 11 Stanley Cups, and that was from a strike-shortened regular season. Those No. 1 seeds would have had a better shot at winning if you were just pulling names out of a hat.

During the salary cap era, the Cup has been won by No. 2 (four times), No. 3 (three times) and No. 5 (three times) seeds more than by a No. 1 (two times). And that doesn’t include the year a No. 8 seed won, or this year when only 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 seeds remain.

“It goes more to show that the difference between the team that ends up at the top of the standings and the last team to get in are a lot narrower than perception is,’’ Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois said shortly after the Lightning loss to Columbus.

He’s right about that. The NHL has more parity than the NFL, NBA or MLB. But that can’t be the only answer. Otherwise, you’re saying the postseason is nothing more than a crapshoot.

If it’s not the number of victories earned in the regular season, then maybe it’s the lessons learned along the way. We thought this is what the Lightning was doing. Tampa Bay won games when it jumped out to big leads and when it came from behind. It won high-scoring games and defensive battles too.

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But it’s possible the Lightning was too focused on the scoreboard, and not enough on the process. As the victories continued to pile up, it’s possible the team got a false sense of what it was going to take to win in the postseason. Players said all the right things, but their postseason performance said otherwise.

“From the start of camp we wanted to peak come playoff time,’’ BriseBois said. “I stated it publicly and internally we had that discourse throughout the year.

“We wanted a good start to make the playoffs, and we did get a good start and built a cushion. And we were constantly looking at, “Okay, let’s make sure we peak at the right time.’ Obviously, we didn’t do a good job of that considering how things played out, but we had it in the back of our minds.’’

It’s not entirely fair to label the stars on this team as being postseason lightweights. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos have had success at various times in the playoffs during their careers.

But it’s completely fair to say they allowed a less talented Columbus team to overwhelm them both physically and mentally in a four-game series. That goes for defenseman Ryan McDonagh and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, too.

It may not be healthy to dwell too much on four games in April, but it would be a huge mistake to not seek answers from the most inexplicable result in franchise history.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.