Except for the exercise, and a few million bucks in home gates, the run to the playoffs was essentially a waste of time for 15 NHL teams.
Oh, they’ll talk brave. They’ll have hope and, in some cases, plenty of genuine confidence.
But they also have virtually no chance of winning the Stanley Cup.
The post-season tournament officially begins Wednesday, 7 p.m. (EST) at Amalie Arena in Tampa, where the Lightning will play host to the Columbus Blue Jackets a half hour before the New York Islanders entertain the Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night’s only other game.
And it will end sometime in early-to-mid June with Steven Stamkos hoisting the coveted mug, either at the exact same menu or a Shark Tank out west.
There will be all sorts of excitement and drama during the two-plus months in between. And along the way the Bolts may even be given a scare. But don’t doubt for a minute that they are about to win their second championship, 15 years after their first.
This season, they are truly in a class by themselves.
On Saturday, the Bolts closed the 82-game warmup with their record tying 62nd victory. Their league-leading 128 points were 21 more than accumulated by the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, who finished tied for second in the Presidents’ Trophy race. The last team to end up that far ahead of the pack was the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, who were 62-13-7 (36-3-2 at home) and with 131 points had 27 more than the second overall Colorado Avalanche. But those Red Wings sputtered through the playoffs before finally running out of gas in a six-game conference final against the Avalanche.
The same could happen to the Lightning, but right from October they have shown no signs of weakness. If they have a flaw, it’s very well hidden.
Their dominance has included top ranking in goals scored (with 325, 36 more than the next best Flames and Sharks), goal differential (at +103, 41 better than the next best Flames), the NHL’s top power play (28.2%), tied for the best penalty killing (85%), the best home record (32-7-2), the best road record (30-9-2), the best player (Nikita Kucherov, 128 points), one of the best goalies (Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a league-high 39 wins to go along with a Top 6 save percentage of .925), one of the best defenceman (Victor Hedman) and the guy who should be named the NHL’s coach of the year, Jon Cooper. His challenge now will be to ensure his team keep the pedal down — which shouldn’t be a problem with a group that clinched the Presidents’ Trophy on Mar. 18 — as it attempts to become only the ninth ever to finish first overall in the regular season and win the Cup in the same year.
That would put Tampa in an illustrious group which currently includes the Edmonton Oilers in 1986-87, the Flames in 1988-89, the New York Rangers in 1993-94, the Dallas Stars in 1998-99, the Avalanche in 2000-01, the Red Wings in 2001-02, the Red Wings in 2007-08 and the Chicago Blackhawks, in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season.
If that opportunity isn’t enough, to add fuel to the Lightning fire Cooper can remind his players of the disappointments they realized in either being eliminated in the Cup final or the conference final in three of the last four years.
Meanwhile, what should be interesting are they battles leading up to the foregone conclusion.
It’s foolhardy not to expect a first round upset or two, but in the East? Can’t see it.
Rather, count on Tampa sweeping Columbus, Boston taking care of the Maple Leafs in five, Washington needing five to eliminate the “bunch of jerks” in Carolina and the Penguins bringing the Islanders back to earth, but not without a struggle, in a classic seven-game series.
The West is far tougher to predict.
The best matchup, for our money, will feature the San Jose Sharks versus the Vegas Golden Knights. This is the Sharks window of opportunity, with Erik Karlsson now back from a groin injury and very likely moving on after the clocks strikes July 1. And despite losing their last two, finishing 3-5-2 down the stretch and winding up with the worst road record (19-20-2) of any playoff team, we still expect the Golden Knights to benefit from last year’s experience. This one has to go seven, with the Sharks ultimately prevailing in the Tank.
Also in our crystal ball is a now healthy Ben Bishop leading the Stars to an upset over the Predators in six, and one of the two Canadian teams getting bumped in the first round.
The Blues rise from last place early in the season was a surprising story, and they’ve probably got one more in them. They’ll take down the Jets in seven, while the Flames knock off the Avalanche in five.
From there, Dallas beats the Blues, while San Jose eliminates the Flames, before the Sharks knock off the Stars in the Western Conference final.
In the East, Tampa will get past the Bruins while Washington is taking care of the Penguins, setting up a great Eastern Conference final and the prelude to the Lightning Cup final win over the Sharks. In six.
Enjoy the playoff story and its twists and turns.
Sorry to spoil the ending.
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