For only the second time since the turn of the century, the NHL champion reigned for a second consecutive season. The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in Game 5 at home Wednesday night, cementing their back-to-back championship status after taking home the Stanley Cup in 2020 as well. Ross Colton he scored the only goal of the game early in the second period, and his teammates played a tough defense to keep Montreal off the board for a shutout victory to seal it.
The 2020-21 season has been very different for Tampa Bay, though. In 2019-20, the Lightning were a wire-to-wire favorite, leading the league in goals and finishing second in the goal difference, earning them a share of the league’s third-best record. This year, the Lightning had their fair share of problems on the road, finishing only third in their own division and eight overall in the league, falling to eighth score and seventh differential. However, in the postseason they have been even better this time than they were last year. In the 2020 playoffs, the Bulls recorded 3.08 goals per game and 2.28 goals against per game, finished fifth in power and penalty-killing efficiency and needed an extra time to win seven games. This year, Tampa Bay scored 3.26 goals per game and led the postseason with 1.96 goals per game, finishing third and fourth, respectively, on the power play and penalty shootout, and he doesn’t need extra time to win a single game.
Although I couldn’t explain any difference between this season and last, it’s hard to argue against the X factor this season for being Lightning Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov, the postseason 2020 scoring leader, missed the entire regular season after undergoing out-of-season hip surgery. While this cost Tampa one of the best players in the league, which could explain his regular season drop, the added salary gap allowed the team to keep its championship list together against all odds. Kucherov returned to health early in the playoffs and also led the field in scoring – and by a wide margin. Having a new and energized Kucherov on the line was the key to the Bolts ’success, especially as they faced several skilled teams on defense. While opinions differ on the integrity of how Tampa Bay handled Kucherov’s injury, the team has been within NHL rules, and has led to a second consecutive title. While some might even argue that the Lightning Stanley Cups are coming in the 2020 “bubble” playoff and after an abbreviated 2020-21 season, it’s hard to see this list not even succeeding under normal circumstances. Kucherov has been followed in the 2021 playoff squad by four teammates – Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn – to round out the top five. Andrei Vasilevskiy he had the best numbers of postseason postseason, and the like Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli and Ryan McDonagh they were also phenomenal.
As for the other Stanley Cup finalist, the efforts of the Montreal Canadiens have been courageous and will not soon be forgotten. The team with the regular season record loss in the postseason stunned the top five teams on the road for a completely unpredictable trip to the championship round. They will soon have a revenge – Tampa Bay and Montreal will return together in the Atlantic Division again next season, alongside several other top-flight teams.