How the Tampa Bay Lightning can be defeated

Like the rest of us, Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau was in awe of the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that has already clinched a playoff spot and continues to threaten the NHL’s all-time record for most points by a team in an 82-game season, with 108 in 69 games.

The Lightning are a juggernaut. Vegas Insider has set their odds to win the Stanley Cup at 5-2, with no other team better than 9-1. Some see their quest for the championship as an inevitability. That’s how dominant they’ve been.

“They’re really talented. They don’t have a weakness. They put the fear of God in you,” said Boudreau.

It turns out that, on occasion, the seemingly supernatural Lightning can look mortal. Boudreau’s team shut them out with a 3-0 win, becoming only the second team this season to blank Tampa Bay.

Even the mightiest can fall, and the Lightning are no different. Here are five ways the Lightning can fall short of the championship; please note that “catastrophic injuries” are not one of them, but obviously losing star winger Nikita Kucherov, defenseman Victor Hedman, center Steven Stamkos or especially goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy could be devastating.

The deeper a series goes, the quieter the offense gets

Earlier this season, Lightning coach Jon Cooper acknowledged that one of his goals for 2018-19 was to get his team playing the kind of defense that wins championships. “We have to win games 2-1, and not 5-4,” he said.

Maybe he’s just being a realist, because the Lightning are anything but that 5-4 team in their most critical playoff games. In fact, in Games 6 and 7 of their past two Eastern Conference finals losses, the Lightning scored a total of three goals: They scored two in Game 6 and one in Game 7 before being eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, then were shut out in back-to-back games by the Washington Capitals in 2018.

“Our offense has failed us, not our defense. We lost 4-0 to Washington [in Game 7], but if you watch that game, there’s an argument that we should have been up 4-0. We lost to Pittsburgh, 2-1,” said Cooper. “I think it’s something where you have to train your team for 82 games, that you can’t just turn it on in the playoffs.”

Look no further than the performances of the Lightning’s top scorers in those games. In 2016, Kucherov had 11 goals, eight assists and 51 shots on goal in 15 playoff games; then he went scoreless in Games 6 and 7 against the Penguins, generating three shots in those games. In 2018, Kucherov had seven goals and 10 assists in 15 games with 61 shots on goal. He had one shot in Game 6 and three in Game 7, but failed to register a point. In those four critical games, Kucherov was a minus-7.

Stamkos was injured in 2016, playing only Game 7 against the Penguins and for just over 11 minutes. He had two shots, a minus-1 and no points. In Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, he was a minus-2 with four shots and no points.

In each of their past two postseason appearances under Cooper, the Lightning have rolled through the first two rounds, winning each of the four series in five games. Both years, they fell in the conference finals in Game 7. The reason is simple: When the postseason’s on the line, they can’t quite do what they do best.

Slow down the pace

If you’re foolish enough to stand in the center of the ring and trade haymakers with the Lightning, you’re eventually going to get knocked out. They simply pack too much power behind their punches for you to play their game and expect to make it out in one piece.

The good news for any prospective opponents is that while they surely won’t be able to match Tampa Bay’s talent level, sometimes a playoff series can be just as much about the way the two teams match up stylistically as it is about anything else. Against a team that’s as prolific offensively as the Lightning, an opponent almost has to go to the complete opposite extreme. It needs to slow the game down to a virtual gridlock, limit the amount of possessions that are traded back and forth, and minimize the number of opportunities Tampa Bay gets in the attacking zone.

We saw the Capitals put on a master class on how that’s done last spring, when they ran the gauntlet against the Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights en route to the Stanley Cup. They managed to trip up some of the league’s quickest attacking teams by grinding the game down to a halt in the neutral zone with their vaunted 1-1-3 trap, limiting the opposition’s ability to carry the puck into and out of the zone with any real semblance of time and space. As those teams all came to quickly appreciate, it’s awfully difficult to get going offensively when you’re constantly having to stop and start whenever you get the puck.

To get a better sense of who typically plays fast versus more methodically, we’re going to use combined rates of shots generated for and against as a proxy for “pace.” While it’s not necessarily a flawless measure, it at the very least gives us a better general sense of how often events are transpiring when specific teams are involved. Here’s how quickly the rest of the teams in the playoff picture are playing this season at even strength via Natural Stat Trick:

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