By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning are undeniably great. They’re running away with the Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team, led by the deepest, most talented roster in the league. The Bruins learned the hard way how tough this team is to kill in Monday night’s third-period collapse in Tampa.
But the Presidents Trophy winners in recent history haven’t been so hard to kill in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, they’re pretty much cursed.
The gold standard of the past 40 years for the Presidents Trophy winners who did not win the Stanley Cup is the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. They finished a preposterous 62-13-7 (131 points), a record for an 82-game season. That ridiculously stacked team – led by the likes of Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Paul Coffey – lost in the Conference Finals to the eventual Cup champions, the Colorado Avalanche.
In the 21 seasons since then, only five Presidents Trophy winners have gone on to win it all – and three of them came before 2002. Since the ’02 Red Wings, only two regular season champions have won the Cup. One of them is the 2012-13 Blackhawks, who beat the Bruins to win the championship in a lockout-shortened season. The other is those same damn Red Wings, who won it all in 2008.
Since the ’13 Blackhawks, it’s been a peculiar run of futility. Starting with (sorry) the 2013-14 Bruins, four of the last five Presidents Trophy winners have bowed out in the second round. Only the 2014-15 Rangers made it to the Conference Finals, and they lost to … the Lightning.
In all, only five of the past 15 Presidents Trophy winners have even made their Conference Final. The point of this exercise is that, based on recent history, Tampa is no lock to win two rounds let alone hoist the Stanley Cup. For whatever reason – lack of meaningful games late in the season, running out of gas, what have you – success from October-April has rarely translated to success in June.
To be fair, this Tampa team could be great enough to break the curse. They’re not your standard run-of-the-mill Presidents Trophy winner. They have 122 points with five games left, giving them an opportunity to tie the all-time points record set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. That team went an absurd 60-8-12, good for 132 points in just 80 games. They won their second of three straight Cup wins that year, and sorry to bring it up but they beat the Bruins in the Cup Final that year.
These Lightning are also unique in that they will win the Presidents Trophy while also boasting the league scoring champion. Nikita Kucherov (38 goals, 121 points) is mirroring his team by running away with the scoring title. Only four other Presidents Trophy winners since the award’s inception in 1986 also had the Art Ross trophy winner, and two of them are the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky. The 1987 Oilers were the only team on that short list to win the Cup.
If it makes you feel any better, the 2010-11 Vancouver Canucks had the scoring champion (Daniel Sedin) and we all know what happened that summer.
So this year’s Lightning team is exceptionally rare. They are legitimately comparable to the Oilers of the late-80s and the Canadiens from ’76-78 (when Guy Lafleur won three straight scoring titles) in terms of their regular season dominance and electrifying scorers. The B’s got a nice big whiff of that right to the face in the third period on Monday, during which Kucherov ripped an absolute missile past Tuukka Rask to tie the game 4-4.
The Lightning are so annoying pic.twitter.com/Vx4nOY5W3v— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) March 26, 2019
But it should be comforting for fans of the Bruins, who would very likely see Tampa in round two if they can get past Toronto, that the last three Presidents Trophy winners have fizzled out against division rivals at that same point. That doesn’t mean any of these seasons are actually related, but the lack of playoff success for Presidents Trophy winners is too striking to dismiss.
There’s certainly going to be a lot of pressure on the B’s locally to get to the second round again, then at least give Tampa a better series than last year when they got run over in five games. But in all actuality, the majority of the pressure across the hockey world will be on the Lightning. It’s Cup or bust for this all-time great regular season team.
It’s time to see how great they really are.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.