It was a mismatch from the start.
The Stanley Cup final, for sure.
Match the defending champion against an upstart with the 18th-best record in the regular season, and you get what we had: a near sweep, with the Lightning more than doubling the Canadiens in goals (17-8).
But I’m talking about the season as a whole.
If you had offered me the Lightning or the field at the outset, I still would have taken Tampa Bay.
The Bolts can beat you 6-5 or 1-0. They can play wide open or locked down. They can beat you when playing their worst game. And overwhelm you at their best. They can beat you at your own game.
They simply have another level that no other team can reach.
Yes, the Panthers gave the Lightning trouble 5-on-5, the Hurricanes reined in their high-flying abandon, the Islanders pushed them to seven games and the Canadiens forced them to battle to the end.
But, truthfully, the only team that had a chance of beating the Lightning this postseason were themselves.
When they adhere to their recipe for success — controlling the neutral zone, managing the puck, putting shots on net, creating traffic in front of the goaltender and playing as a five-man unit in all areas of the ice — they are unstoppable.
They took a huge gamble when they placed Nikita Kucherov, their top offensive player, on the long-term injured reserve list for the entirety of the regular season. But the move turned out to be the right one, as a healthy Kucherov was outstanding upon returning, leading the league with 32 postseason points and adding to Tampa Bay’s embarrassment of riches.
First-line mate Brayden Point had a playoff-high 14 goals and scored in nine consecutive games. Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy went head-to-head with Carey Price and proved once and for all that he is the best goaltender in the world. Victor Hedman, last season’s Conn Smythe winner, led all defensemen with 18 points.
No team could match the Lightning’s skill, goaltending, defensive play or forward depth. Quiet early in the postseason, Anthony Cirelli’s second line stepped up in some big moments. Yanni Gourde’s third line gave coach Jon Cooper a unit he could match up against anyone. The fourth, centered by Tyler Johnson, was at times Tampa Bay’s best.
Oh, and did we mention that the Lightning repeated as Cup champions during a worldwide pandemic, with all of the restrictions and protocols that come with it?
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Anyone surprised by Tampa Bay’s dominance hasn’t been paying attention.
The Lightning have dominated the NHL over the past seven seasons in ways few teams can: six playoff berths, five conference final appearances, three Stanley Cup finals appearances and two Cups.
The off years? They set a regular-season record for wins in 2019 before being upset in the first round and missed the playoffs by a single point in 2017 after a disastrous start. Had they gotten in, they might have been the most dangerous team in the field after storming to the finish line with runs of 18-6-5 and 7-1-1.
Granted, it hasn’t been the same roster every year. The Lightning had to add grit and commit to defense. But the core — Kucherov, Vasilevskiy, Johnson, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat — has been there for most of their run.
Are the Lightning a dynasty? Doesn’t matter.
What I see is seven years of sustained excellence.
No team has been this good for this long while playing under these circumstances.
Grade: U, for unprecedented.
Here’s how we graded the Lightning’s performance in their 1-0 win in Game 5:
Ironically, two players who were not part of last season’s Cup run, rookie Ross Colton and trade-deadline acquisition David Savard, combined on the game’s only goal.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh dug the puck out of a scrum along the leftside boards and passed to Savard, who skated to the right faceoff dot. Savard sent a shot-pass into the slot for Colton, who one-timed the puck past Price to put the Lightning ahead with 6:33 to play in the second period.
It was a heads-up play by McDonagh, who skated laterally along the blue line to buy time, a skilled pass from Savard and a great effort from Colton, who beat Montreal defenseman Joel Edmundson to the net with his stick on the ice.
The best of everything.
The Conn Smythe voters got it right. Vasilevskiy has been the Lightning’s most indispensible player the past two postseasons, and Game 5 was no different.
Goaltenders seldom win the award given to the playoff MVP, but how can you deny it to a player who has gone 14-0 in games following a playoff loss and closed out his past five postseason series with shutouts?
Vasilevskiy was sharp under the most difficult of circumstances for a goaltender — when they don’t see a lot of shots — but stopped all 22 he faced, many from odd angles with traffic in front and several on back-to-back chances.
Vasilevskiy didn’t lose sight of the puck when a Shea Weber shot from the right point deflected off Brayden Point’s skate in the first period, and he was in perfect position to make a right pad save on an Artturi Lehkonen tip from the slot in the second.
With the Lightning clinging to a one-goal lead early in the third, Vasilevskiy skated out above the crease to stop a point-blank shot from Josh Anderson after Anderson had gotten behind defenseman Erik Cernak following a stretch pass from Jeff Petry.
As with so many of his other saves, Vasilevskiy made it look easy.
The enduring images of Game 5 for me won’t be Colton’s primal scream following his goal, Vasilevskiy being mobbed by his teammates after the final buzzer or even Stamkos hoisting the Cup.
It will be the reaction from the Lightning bench after Cirelli slid to block an Alexander Romanov shot from the right point five minutes into the third period.
It will be Mikhail Sergachev helping Barclay Goodrow off the ice after Goodrow blocked a Weber shot with just over seven minutes remaining, Goodrow laboring to get off the ice and Yanni Gourde pushing him the final few strides to the bench.
And it will be Goodrow laying out to block a Petry shot from the center point, deflecting the puck out of the zone, with the Lightning down a man and the Canadiens pressuring in an attempt to tie the game in the final minute.
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