For just the second time since the turn of the century, the NHL champion reigns for a second consecutive season. The Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in Game Five at home on Wednesday night, cementing their back-to-back champion status after taking home the Stanley Cup in 2020 as well. Young Ross Colton scored the only goal of the game early in the second period and his teammates played tough defense to keep Montreal off the board for a shutout win to seal it.
The 2020-21 season was far different for the Lightning, though. In 2019-20, Tampa was a wire-to-wire favorite, leading the league in goals for and finishing second in goal differential, which earned them a share of the third-best record in the league. This year, the Lightning had their fair share of issues along the way, finishing only third in their own division and eighth overall in the league, falling to eighth in scoring and seventh in differential. Yet, in the postseason they were even better this time around than they were last year. In the 2020 playoffs, the Bolts recorded 3.08 goals for per game and 2.28 goals against per game, finished fifth in power play and penalty kill efficiency, and required extra time to win seven games. This year, Tampa Bay notched 3.26 goals for per game and led the postseason with 1.96 goals against per game, finished third and fourth respectively on the power play and penalty kill, and did not need overtime to win a single game.
Though it may not explain every difference between this season and last, it is hard to argue against the x-factor this season for the Lightning being Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov, the 2020 postseason scoring leader, missed the entire regular season after undergoing off-season hip surgery. While this cost Tampa one of the best players in the league, which could explain their regular season drop-off, the added salary cap space allowed the team to keep their championship roster together against all odds. Kucherov then returned to health in time for the playoff and again led the field in scoring – and by a wide margin. Having a fresh, energized Kucherov in the lineup was key to the Bolts’ success, especially as they faced several defensively skilled teams. While opinions differ on the integrity of how Tampa Bay managed Kucherov’s injury, the team stayed within the NHL’s rules and it led to a second consecutive title. While some may also argue that the Lightning’s back-to-back Stanley Cups came in the 2020 “bubble” playoffs and following a shortened 2020-21 season, it is difficult to see this roster not finding success under normal circumstances as well. Kucherov was followed in the 2021 playoff scoring race by four teammates – Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Alex Killorn – to round out the top five, while Conn Smythe Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy had the best goaltending numbers of the postseason and was clutch when it mattered most, including a shutout to clinch all four series. The likes of Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Ryan McDonagh were also phenomenal for Tampa.
As for the other Stanley Cup finalist, the efforts of the Montreal Canadiens were valiant and will not soon be forgotten. The team with the worst regular season record in the postseason stunned two top-five teams en route to a completely improbable and unforeseen trip to the championship round. They will get a chance at revenge soon – Tampa Bay and Montreal will be back together in the Atlantic Division again next season, alongside several other top teams.