This wasn’t the script. This isn't how things were supposed to end for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were dominant in almost every way possible during the regular season.
They tied the 1996-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a season with 62. Their goal differential was in the triple digits: +103. The next best team was +62. They had the league’s best power play and the league’s best penalty kill.
The Lightning had incredible top-end talent: Nikita Kucherov won the Art Ross Trophy with a whopping 128 points. He was one of three Lightning forwards with 40+ goals. Beyond their top scorers, they had fantastic depth, with players throughout their lineup that could score, including 11 players in double digits in goals and a dozen with 30+ points.
They had one 50+ point defenceman in Victor Hedman, but Ryan McDonagh also posted 46 points and Mikhail Sergachev added 32 from the blue line. On top of that, they had one of the best goaltenders in the league. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a .925 save percentage during the regular season and is a favourite for the Vezina Trophy.
Aside from some concerns about their underlying analytics — they were 9th in corsi, 8th in expected goals, and 11th in scoring chances — the Lightning were overwhelming favourites to win the Stanley Cup.
They just got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.
It’s a stunning result that no one saw coming. Certainly, the Blue Jackets are a very good team, who went all-in at the trade deadline by both keeping Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, and also taking big swings by acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. But even the most optimistic Blue Jackets fan couldn’t have dreamed of sweeping the Lightning.
It’s an historic result. The Lightning are the first team ever in the expansion era to get swept in the first round after leading the league in points. The Blue Jackets barely snuck into the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, finishing just two points clear of the Montreal Canadiens.
But the Blue Jackets smothered the Lightning with an aggressive forecheck and outstanding goaltending from Sergei Bobrovsky, and by out-performing the Lightning on special teams. A dozen different players scored for the Blue Jackets in the series, while the Lightning’s best players were grounded: Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos were held to just two points, Brayden Point had just one of his namesake, and Victor Hedman was scratched with an unknown injury.
Somehow making it even worse for the Lightning, this was the first playoff series win for the Blue Jackets in franchise history. It's about as unlikely a result as you could possibly imagine.
There’s plenty to unpack in the Blue Jackets’ sweep of the Lightning, but perhaps the most important for Canucks fans is that it erases an ignominious mark on their favourite franchise. Prior to this sweep, the worst result for a Presidents’ Trophy winner was held by the 2012 Vancouver Canucks, who lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Canucks had come one game away from the Stanley Cup the year before and were once again the best team in the NHL during the regular season. There was just one problem. They were missing their leading goalscorer.
Daniel Sedin missed the final nine games of the regular season and the first three games of the playoffs. He was recovering from a concussion thanks to one of the dirtiest hits I’ve ever seen: Duncan Keith intentionally elbowed an unsuspecting Daniel directly in the face away from the puck.
Daniel returned for the final two games of the series against the Kings and helped them win Game 4 to prevent a sweep, but he wasn’t quite the same player he was before Keith’s elbow.
That gave the Canucks an easy excuse and it likely saved Alain Vigneault’s job: the coach lasted one more season with the Canucks before a first-round sweep by the San Jose Sharks dealt the deciding blow.
Before the Canucks’ 5-game loss to the Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup, no Presidents’ Trophy winner had ever lost in the first round in five games. In face, only five Presidents’ Trophy winners prior to the Canucks had ever lost in the first round since 1986 when the award was introduced. They’ve won the Stanley Cup eight times in that same span and at least made the Finals 12 times.
Three of those teams lost in six games, while two lost in seven games.
In 1991, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks lost to the Minnesota North Stars in six games. You can thank some shaky goaltending by the great Ed Belfour and a hesitance by the Blackhawks to hand the reins to their rookie netminder, Dominik Hasek.
The 2000 St. Louis Blues pushed their series to seven games against the San Jose Sharks after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but were undone by their goaltender, Roman Turek, falling apart. He made just 16 saves on 19 shots in the deciding Game 7.
The Detroit Red Wings similarly lost in six games to the Edmonton Oilers in 2006 after winning the Presidents’ Trophy. The Oilers would go on to lose in the Stanley Cup Finals in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The San Jose Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009, then promptly lost to the Anaheim Ducks in six games in the first round. Goaltender Jonas Hiller had the Sharks’ number all series, posting two shutouts.
The 2010 Washington Capitals lost in the first round after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but they at least pushed their series with the Montreal Canadiens to Game 7. Jaroslav Halak basically stole that series for the Canadiens, making 131 saves on 134 shots in the final three games to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
You can see a common factor: goaltending. The Lightning may have had a Vezina favourite in their net in Vasilevskiy, but the Blue Jackets had a two-time Vezina winner in their net in Bobrovsky.
Bobrovsky had a down year by his standards, with a .913 save percentage that had some wondering if losing goaltending coach Ian Clark to the Canucks had cost him some of his competitive advantage. At the same time, he led the league with nine shutouts, including four in his last nine games of the regular season. He got hot at the right time.
Goaltending certainly wasn’t the whole story — the Blue Jackets held the Lightning to fewer than 30 shots in the first two games of the series — but it played a significant role. Bobrosvky was fantastic, while Vasilevskiy simply wasn’t as dominant as he had been in the regular season.
Likewise, goaltending was a big story in the playoffs for the 2012 Canucks. Not only were they stymied by Jonathan Quick, but they had a goaltending controversy of their own, turning to Cory Schneider over Roberto Luongo halfway through the series.
It’s an ugly finish to a beautiful season for the 2019 Lightning, just as it was for the 2012 Canucks. It was just a little bit uglier for the Lightning.