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What went wrong: examining the Lightning’s massive letdown

Photo Courtesy of Wayne Masut, Senior Staff Photographer

Six days. That’s all it took for six months of a historical season to come to a screeching halt. Six days to morph from a perceived juggernaut into a team that makes the wrong kind of history. This wasn’t the way the season was supposed to end for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Since losing Games 6 and 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final without scoring a goal, the Lightning talked many times about finishing the job. They spoke about learning from their mistakes, getting over the hump, and bringing the Stanley Cup back to Tampa. Instead, they served up a massive letdown in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The regular season turned out to be anything but a letdown for the Bolts. In fact, they put on a show, winning 62 times, tying the Detroit Red Wings’ record set in 1995-96. They finished with 128 points, the most in the salary cap era. Team records and some league records fell on a regular basis. Nikita Kucherov ended the season with 128 points, the most by a Russian-born player and the most in the cap era.

Steven Stamkos tallied 45 goals, while Brayden Point topped the 40-goal mark as well. Kucherov also hit the 40-goal plateau, making Tampa Bay the first team since the 1995-96 Penguins to boast three 40-goal scorers. Their depth up front and on the blue line was unmatched. Andrei Vasilevskiy put forth a Vezina Trophy-caliber season despite missing a month with injury. The Lightning owned the league’s best power play, tied for the best penalty kill, scored the most goals per game and tied for seventh-best in goals against per game. They clinched the Presidents’ Trophy with nine games remaining. The stage was set for a coronation.

Yet all it took was six days for everything to unravel.

Instead, the Lightning ran into a runaway train. A runaway train known as the Columbus Blue Jackets. It took the Blue Jackets four games to send the Lightning to the golf course earlier than expected. A Tampa Bay team that so many pundits thought would cruise through the first round had no answer for the Blue Jackets.

As a result, we witnessed the biggest letdown in the history of the NHL and one of the biggest in sports. Several 100-point teams in NHL history (Boston and Chicago in 1992-93, Ottawa in 2000-01, Detroit in 2002-03, Chicago in 2016-17) saw their season end with a first round sweep. Since the Presidents’ Trophy was first awarded in 1985-86, six other winners had their season end in the first round. However, the Lightning became the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to get swept out of the opening round. On top of that, they didn’t dominate and run into a hot goalie. They got taken to the woodshed. That’s what makes this letdown worse.

How could this happen?

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