As each NHL team is eliminated from playoff contention — either mathematically or by losing in the postseason — we’ll take a look at why its quest for the Stanley Cup fell short in 2017-18, along with three keys to its offseason and a way-too-early prediction for what 2018-19 will hold.
What went wrong
On paper, the Tampa Bay Lightning looked superior to the Washington Capitals.
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They had the better record (113 points to 105). They had a deeper, more veteran roster. They had rolled through two rounds of the playoffs, playing five games in each series. They had home-ice advantage, which actually meant something before the 2018 postseason started.
So what happened?
Simply put, the Capitals rose to the occasion: They played better in the seven-game series, had their star players perform when they needed them, and the Lightning were unable to exert their will on a Washington team that, in the end, was seemingly destined to play for the Stanley Cup for the first time in Alex Ovechkin’s career.
Keys to the offseason
1. Act like the window is wide-open for just one more year.
Remember when Ryan Callahan lamented that the Lightning approached Game 6 against Washington like they knew they still had a Game 7 as a fallback? It could be argued that’s actually the entirety of their postseason. Assuming they have access to Cap Friendly, the Lightning know they have one more shot at a Stanley Cup before their financial landscape completely changes.
In summer 2019, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point hit restricted free agency; Yanni Gourde, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi will be unrestricted free agents. The following summer, it’s restricted free agency for Mikhail Sergachev and Andrei Vasilevskiy. It might be 2019 or bust with this group.
2. Re-examine the blue line.
Younger and faster is the trend around the NHL, from the top line to the blue line. Replacing someone like Chris Kunitz on the fourth line with fast, cheap, younger labor is an easy play. Harder calls? Examining the upgrade button for Coburn, 33, and Girardi, 34. In theory, the answers are found inside their own locker room with players like Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek. Or perhaps not.
3. Administer psychology exams.
Losing the first two games on home ice in the Eastern Conference finals. Failing to close out the Capitals when given the chance. There’s something to be said for the aforementioned inevitability of the Capitals, but there’s also something to be said for the Lightning’s shortcomings here.
Realistic expectation for 2018-19
To challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Few teams will enter next season with the assemblage of talent the Tampa Bay Lightning have. Nor, one assumes, their hunger after this unsatisfying playoff run.