In the midst of a global pandemic, you might have forgotten who is the defending champion of the National Hockey League. But in a dramatic season, the Tampa Bay Lightning head into the 2021 NHL Playoffs as the holders of the Stanley Cup.
2019-2020 regular season
Things were going along swimmingly for the Bolts before the world shut down in mid-March. Tampa Bay was 43-21-6 after a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 10th, but were playing some of the best hockey in the world anyway. They led the NHL in scoring, though were eight points behind the Boston Bruins for the Eastern Conference lead after 70 games played.
Nikita Kucherov led all Lightning scorers with 85 regular season points, while centers Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point were maybe the best one-two combination in the NHL on the top two lines.
For a team that had won the President’s Trophy in 2019, only to flame out spectacularly by getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in humiliating fashion in the first round of the playoffs, the regular season didn’t mean as much however. It was all about what would happen from April until June.
Or post-pandemic, from August until September.
The Bubble Playoffs
Once the league reconvened in Canada to finish the season, the Lightning played brilliant hockey. They avenged the humiliation of the previous season by knocking off the Blue Jackets in five games, opening the series with a five-overtime thriller that saw Point be the bonus hockey hero.
It would be the first of many for the 23-year-old, who did it again in Game 5 to send CBJ home.
The Bolts then dispatched the Bruins for the third-consecutive playoff series, with Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman doing the honors in Game 5.
Then came the New York Islanders, who were lit aflame in an 8-2 beatdown in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. But the plucky Isles hung around and made a series of it, as they took it to six games.
Thanks yet again to an overtime goal, this one from third-liner Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay would play for the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history.
You’d think the best team in hockey would have had enough of the drama, especially against a Dallas Stars outfit they were strongly favored against. You’d be wrong.
Though they wouldn’t need the last-minute dramatics in the clincher, it was the lesser-used Kevin Shattenkirk that gave the Bolts a 3-1 lead via yet another dramatic OT goal in Game 4.
After Dallas’s 3-2 OT win in Game 5 after the first back-to-back in the NHL postseason in years, and the Lightning ended up playing a total of 216:14 of overtime in the playoffs, which is the all-time record. They were 7-2 in those games, and they meant so much the number 216:14 ended up on the championship rings.
But after a 2-0 victory in Game 6, the fourth shutout of the regular season and playoffs for 2019 Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Bolts took home Lord Stanley for the second time after their 2004 championship.
Can they repeat?
Though the Bolts closed the 2021 season poorly, looking lethargic without seven of their 10 best players in a pair of season-ending games against the Florida Panthers, they are still very much in contention to bring the 37 pounds of silver back to the Bay.
The Lightning have been without former MVP Kucherov, who sat out the season with a hip injury, but should return for the playoffs. Last weekend they also played without Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat, Barclay Goodrow, and Steven Stamkos. Getting all that talent back, though Stamkos might not be ready for Game 1 against those same Panthers, means the team has as good a chance as any recent winner to repeat.
Right now Tampa Bay is +850 at DraftKings Sportsbook to retain Lord Stanley.