As the 2021-22 National Hockey League Stanley Cup playoffs emerge toward the halfway point, one thing has certainly remained constant: The Tampa Bay Lightning are a pretty darn good hockey team.
That’s what this year’s version is out to prove. In the last half-century or so, since the league expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, only seven franchises have been able to successfully defend a championship title.
The Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings had done it before the current two-time champion Lightning celebrated back-to-back championships last summer.
Out of all those great dynasties, you have to go all the way back to the early 1980s to find the last team to win three in a row, when the Islanders won four straight. Not even Wayne Gretzky did it. Which makes Tampa Bay’s aspirations all that much more special, especially since there are more teams than ever and more parity too, thanks to the salary cap that was implemented in 2006. Since teams have had to abide by a spending limit, only the Penguins and Lightning were able to host back-to-back championship parades.
Tampa seems primed to do it again, which would be remarkable.
Some argue that the first two hold asterisks, as the 2020 Cup was held inside a bubble in Canada and the 2021 season was shortened with limited fans in attendance. But at some point we have to acknowledge that the Lightning’s accomplishments are legit. A team with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy is a flat-out powerhouse. And what makes the Lightning’s roster even more impressive is the fact that there are virtually no bad contracts on their ledger, aside from the contract of Brent Seabrook, which is a long-term injured reserve situation and doesn’t count against the cap.
Their stars are paid like stars and they play like stars. Their second-tier salary guys like Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev are key components. And role players like Zach Bogosian, Corey Perry, Ross Colton, former Flyer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and three-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Maroon are steady contributors who play at or near the league’s minimum salary.
This year’s version of the Lightning gutted their way past a talented Toronto Maple Leafs squad in a seven-game series that boasted the league’s top goal scorer in Auston Matthews. Then they quickly dismantled the Presidents Trophy-winning Florida Panthers in round two, even without Point in the lineup. They’ve done it without home-ice advantage in either series. They are now eight wins from doing something phenomenal. And at this point, how can you bet against them?
According to recent history, the Lightning have gotten past the toughest part, as the second round of the playoffs seems to be where most two-time champs get ousted. Here’s a look at how the last five two-time defending Stanley Cup champions fared in their bid for a three-peat.
2019 Penguins: They lost to the Washington Capitals in round two as Evgeny Kuznetsov sealed it with an overtime winner in Game 6. The Caps continued on to win the Cup.
1999 Red Wings: Detroit won the first two games of its second-round matchup with the Colorado Avalanche, both on the road, but the Avs stormed back to take the next four games, including three in the Motor City, in one of the most heated rivalries in NHL history.
1993 Penguins: This version was Mario Lemiuex and Jaromir Jagr and the Presidents Trophy-winning Pens were knocked out by the Islanders in round two as David Volek scored in overtime in Game 7 to complete a huge upset.
1989 Oilers: After winning in ’87 and ’88, the Oilers famously traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in the offseason. As luck would have it, the Oilers would meet L.A. in the first round and Gretzky had his way against his old club, leading the Kings to a Game 7 win with a pair of goals and an assist.
1986 Oilers: The Oilers were going for three straight after titles in ’84 and ’85 but shot themselves in the foot in the second round of the playoffs when Steve Smith scored on his own net late in Game 7 to send the Calgary Flames into the conference final.