Not winning the Stanley Cup isn’t what makes the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning a failure.
Sometimes great teams simply don’t win.
There is no shame in losing in the Stanley Cup Final. Losing Game 7 of a conference final is nothing to hang your head over. If their season had ended in that manner (again), or perhaps even in the second round against Boston or Toronto, there would have been some criticism and some doubt about their ability to finish the job, but the reaction wouldn’t have been anywhere near as harsh as it will be following their four-game exit at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Championships are rare, and a great regular season guarantees you nothing when it comes to hardware because there are so many factors that go into being handed that trophy at the end of the playoffs.
What makes this Lightning team a complete and total failure is the fact it simply no-showed in the playoffs. And even saying that may be letting this group off the hook more than they deserve.
This was not the 2010 Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals outplaying a team for seven games only to lose because a goalie got white hot and played the series of his life. This was not a team playing well and doing things right only to go lose a long, drawn out seven-game series because a bounce or two didn’t go their way.
This was the best regular season team of the modern era, and maybe one of the best regular season teams ever, getting absolutely humiliated in four straight games. This thing was not even close.
Outside of the first 15 minutes of the series where the Lightning jumped out to an early three-goal lead, there was never a point in this series where you felt like they were close to breaking through, or that they were playing their game and simply being beaten by a goalie or some rough puck luck, or that they were going to get themselves right.
They just flat out got whooped.
[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]
A team that scored 325 goals during the regular season, and had three different 40-goal scorers, and outscored teams by more than 100 goals, was thoroughly dominated.
They managed just eight goals in four games. They were outscored by a 19-8 margin for the series, and 19-5 over the final 11 periods.
If you wanted to look for excuses, you could point to the injuries to Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman on the blue line, and especially Hedman’s. He is one of the key cogs that makes the machine run smoothly. But this wasn’t the first time they played without him this season and they never looked that bad without him.
And for as good as Stralman is, they only had him for 47 games during the season and still managed to win 62 games without him.
This is also a team that was deep enough and good enough to be without its starting goalie for an entire month and still went 12-3-0 without him.
You could also point to the fact the Blue Jackets are probably better than their final regular season record because the roster as currently constructed was only together for about a month-and-a-half. Maybe that, combined with the absence of Hedman in Games 3 and 4 and the fact he surely wasn’t healthy in Games 1 and 2, narrowed the gap.
But there is no way it narrowed the gap this much.
You can’t fault anyone for injuries. But you can fault, say, Nikita Kucherov for taking himself out of Game 3 due to a reckless, selfish play. You can fault the offense for not showing up.
What makes this performance even worse for the Lightning is that it in a lot of ways validated any criticism they may have faced for falling short in recent postseasons.
As I wrote before the playoffs began, the Lightning were under a ton of pressure to win this year (probably more than any other team in the playoffs) not only because of what they did during the regular season, but because of the way they have fallen short in recent postseasons.
Again, this is a team that had a 2-1 lead in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and then lost three games in a row scoring only two goals. This is a team that in two of the past three years had 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final only to lose both, scoring just three total games in the four games they lost (they scored three goals in their Games 6 and 7 losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and zero goals in their two defeats a year ago to the Washington Capitals).
There is losing, and then there is collapsing.
The Lightning have developed a tendency for collapsing.
Now comes the hard part for the Lightning.
Now they have to figure out why this happened, why this team failed so spectacularly, and what exactly there is to do about it.
There is no denying the talent on this team, and it’s not like the group is without its share of success. Since the start of the 2014-15 season the Lightning have won more regular season games than any other team in the NHL, and the third most playoff games. The core that produced all of those wins is still locked in place and under team control, and most of them are still in the prime of their careers. It’s not like this is a situation that is screaming for a massive overhaul, and quite honestly, a massive overhaul is probably the worst thing they could do.
But it’s no longer unfair to ask if something is just off here.
Is it the coach? Is it the players? Or was it simply a team that had been ridiculously close in recent years, falling just short, simply falling on its face at the worst possible time?
In a vacuum any of the Lightning’s recent postseason losses are nothing to be terribly worried about on their own.
That’s sports. Your season is going to end short of a championship far more often than it doesn’t. But to keep losing the way they have, and to keep going out as meekly as they have when they have been in a position of control is something worth talking about.
Simply losing isn’t what is going to define the 2018-19 Lightning, or even this current core of players.
It is the way they have lost that is defining them.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.