Taking a Moment to Appreciate the 2018-19 Lightning
With the start of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs over a week away, the Tampa Bay Lightning are completing one of the greatest regular-season performances in NHL history.
With 59 wins and four games remaining in their schedule, they’re poised to become only the third team to reach the 60-win plateau in a season. They also have a shot at breaking the single-season record of 62, set by the Detroit Red Wings in 1995-96.
With 122 points, they could become the first team in the salary-cap era to exceed 124 points. They clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the best regular season record on March 18. As of March 30, they hold a 19-point lead in the overall standings.
The Lightning not only dominates as a team but also at the individual player level.
They’re the only club with three players – Forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point – who’ve reached or exceeded 90 points this season. Kucherov (122 points) has the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s scoring leader sewn up. He’s also the first player to reach 120 points since Sidney Crosby in 2006-07. Stamkos and Point, meanwhile, have reached the 40-goal mark.
In goal, the Lightning possesses a potential Vezina Trophy candidate in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was also a finalist for the award last season. Meanwhile, 2018 Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman patrols the blueline along with potential Norris candidate Ryan McDonagh.
Entering the 2019 playoffs as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup, the Lightning skate in rarefied air. Taking home the Cup would cap a dream season, placing them among the NHL’s greatest single-season teams.
And yet, some NHL followers seem skeptical over the Lightning’s chances of winning Lord Stanley mug. They recall how those ’95-’96 Red Wings were defeated in the 1996 Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Avalanche.
No one’s suggesting the Lightning will have an easy road to the Cup. The playoffs are a two-month, four-round slog that can tax the limits of even the deepest roster.
Holding the best record in the regular season often doesn’t translate into postseason success. Of the 32 previous Presidents’ Trophy winners, only eight went on to win the Cup.
The Lightning also has their own recent history of playoff futility to deal with. They reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and two Eastern Conference Finals (2016, 2018) but came up short each time.
But if the Lightning can pull it off, it will be a significant achievement, one make rare in the NHL’s salary-cap era.
Because of the cap, this season will be the last time this current Lightning club will get a shot at the Cup. With over $73 million invested in 16 players for 2019-20, they must shed salary to re-sign restricted free agents like Point, Cedric Paquette, and Adam Erne, plus they must re-sign or replace unrestricted free agent defensemen Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi, and Braydon Coburn.
Next summer, they’ll probably have to free up more cap space to re-sign Vasilevskiy while promising defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak will seek significant raises coming off their entry-level contracts.
Winning the Stanley Cup would be the fitting capstone to the Lightning’s remarkable season. And if they win it, hockey fans should take a moment to appreciate the achievement. It could be years before we see another team like the 2018-19 Lightning again.