The Tale of Two Teams
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
It has been a tale of two teams this year. For the first time in NHL history, the top two seeds in the league have been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The regular season team being like night and day to the team appearing in the playoffs.
Let’s explore the two teams, regular season and playoffs also known as, the season of light and the season of darkness. Beginning with the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Regular Season Tampa Bay Lightning
The Season of Light
Having won the President’s Trophy early in the season and tying a record for regular season wins with 62, almost every fan and expert was picking the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. They had the fire power after boasting three 90+ point players in Kucherov (128), Stamkos (99), and Point (92), while also having the leading scorer in the league. If you asked anyone what the Lightning’s weaknesses were, you would be hard pressed to find any. They led the league in goals scored, and powerplay and penalty kill percentage. They were also third in goals against, showcasing their penchant for defensive play as well. It was without a doubt, the season of light. But as we saw as the playoffs progressed, all good things come to an end. And in Tampa’s case, it came to a crashing end.
Playoffs Tampa Bay Lightning
Season of Darkness
When the Blue Jackets won the right to play the Tampa Bay Lightning on the last week of the regular season, almost everyone thought the Lightning would have an easy time dispatching the second wild card team. Many experts called for a sweep or a five-game elimination. However, the Blue Jackets had other ideas. This first game had many parallels to the Calgary Flames beginning of the season of darkness. The Lightning quickly jumped out to a 3-0 first period lead, making it look like they would have an easy time in the series. However, they could not get that all important fourth goal, and Nik Foligno would get the Jackets on the board. The second period would end without another goal, paving the way for a Lightning win, right? Being 39-2-2 when leading after two would make you think so. But again, the Jackets had other ideas, as they eventually scored three goals in the third to take Game 1.
This was the beginning of the end for the Lightning, as they were outscored 15-5 over the course of the series. The fire power that was so evident in the regular season disappeared. The trio of Kucherov, Stamkos, and Point that combined for 319 points in the regular season combined for only five points along with an ugly -17. Every game, the Blue Jackets looked like the better team, and if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that Columbus finished the season with 128 points. Even when Game 4 rolled around and they were facing elimination, the Lightning looked bad, losing 7-3, and cementing their place in history as the first President’s Trophy winner to be swept in the first round. The season of darkness could not get any darker.
Where Do the Lightning Go From Here?
Tampa Bay’s collapse in the playoffs is a sign of a weakness in the organization. Jon Cooper could not get his team motivated when it counted the most. Every game looked the same after Game 1. The Blue Jackets were the faster team, harder on pucks, and seemed like they wanted it more. Blame this on the lack of adversity faced by the team during the regular season. The Lightning had won the President’s Trophy early in the season, so they really had nothing to play for during the last two months of the season. The Blue Jackets on the other hand were fighting for a playoff spot right up to the last day of the season, essentially playing playoff games for at least a month. It’s hard to push through adversity when you have not faced it during the season. So, what should they do in the offseason? Here are three things that should happen:
- Add some more “lunch pail” guys to the bottom six
- There were plenty times in the series where the Lightning were outworked. It would benefit them to acquire a “lunch pail” player like an Antoine Roussel or Ryan Reaves to shift momentum in a series.
- Learn to work through adversity
- The players and coaches have to take the experience in this series and somehow learn to work through adversity when it is presented to them.
- Don’t make any drastic changes to the roster
- Despite the immense disappointment, GM Julien Brisebois cannot panic and blow up the roster. There was a reason the Lightning dominated the league. Tweaks are only needed for this team to get over the hump in the playoffs. And to be fair, the Blue Jackets are a much better team than their 2nd wild card finish suggested. They were probably the most equipped to match up against the Lightning and win.
Now that we have explored the tallest tower which was the Lightning, let’s take a look at the other tower to fall, the Calgary Flames.
Regular Season Calgary Flames
The Season of Light
If you looked at the Calgary Flames at the end of the regular season, they were definitely contenders for the Stanley Cup. Led by “Johnny Hockey,” Sean Monahan, Elias Lindholm, and Matthew Tkachuk up front and the ageless Norris Trophy favorite, Mark Giordano, on the blue line, experts and fans alike were justified in believing this. All the numbers supported it too. The Flames had the second best record with 107 points, second in goals scored with 289, and were top 10 in goals against. The depth of scoring was also enviable with four lines capable of putting up points. On top of that, the Flames also boasted two goaltenders capable of being starters. It definitely was the “season of light.” However, the light was not going to last, as we saw when the playoffs began. Let’s look at the other side of the Calgary Flames, the playoff version; also known as the “season of darkness.”
Playoff Calgary Flames
The Season of Darkness
The playoffs started well for the Flames, where they posted a 4-0 win in Game 1. But the season of light was to end after that, paving the way for the season of darkness. Flames fans saw a totally different team starting in Game 2, and it would not get better as the series progressed. The team that looked fast and resilient suddenly looked slow and sluggish. Nathan MacKinnon skated circles around their defenders and the top line, which also included Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog, looked unstoppable. Mike Smith, who started all five games, was a bright spot at times, but also looked human. The adjustments attempted by Bill Peters, which inevitably happen in a seven game series, did nothing to slow down the trio. Matthew Tkachuk, who was supposed to be a force in the playoffs, disappeared after scoring two goals in Game 1. Every game after that one, he looked frustrated and took 18 minutes of penalties over the course of Games 2 through 5. The top line of Gaudreau, Monahan, and Lindholm was shut down as well, combining for only 5 points. Gaudreau was a shadow of his regular season self, only putting up one assist. Following Game 1, the Avs took over and outscored the Flames 17-7 over the rest of the series. It was definitely a tale of two teams.
Where Do the Flames Go From Here?
This team is clearly not built for the playoffs, as they have been eliminated in the first round 12 of the last 14 years. That is a streak that cannot continue. The Flames were also not fast enough to contend with the speedy Avs forwards. This year’s playoffs have taught us that you need to construct two different teams in the off-season, one that can get you to the playoffs and one that can win in the playoffs. This means you have to have players that will perform in the playoffs, and not necessarily in the regular season. Here are three moves or changes the Flames need to make:
- Get a physical winger to play with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan
- Gaudreau was pushed around way too much in this series; and no player on his line stood up for him. He also looked like he had no room to execute plays.
- Matthew Tkachuk looks like the obvious choice here. But for him to be effective, he cannot melt down like he did in this series.
- Learn from the experience (players and coaches)
- Bill Peters’ first foray into the playoffs did not go as planned, as he was out-coached by Jared Bednar. He could not adjust his system to contain the top line of the Avs. Peters has to take this experience and learn to adjust his system as a series progresses.
- Figure out the goaltending
- The regular season was kind to Mike Smith and David Rittich. When the playoffs rolled around, Mike Smith looked great at times, but was not a consistent presence in the crease.
- David Rittich never got into a game, despite going 27-9-5 in the regular season. This was a mistake. Rittich should have been given the opportunity to turn this series around.
In conclusion, historically the NHL playoffs are hard to predict, and the 2019 playoffs have been no exception. However, we have had some history being made with both top seeds getting eliminated in the first round. David has slayed Goliath twice in one year. Let’s remember this, because it probably will never happen again.
Matthew Zator is a Contributor for the Unwrapped Sports Network website. Follow him @SwaggyCanuck on Twitter.