Expert NHL Handicapping: Is Tampa Bay One of All-Time Great Teams?
The Tampa Bay Lightning are having a truly incredible season by any measure. With five games left to play, they have 122 points and 59 wins. With three more wins, they would tie the 1996 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins in a season. And if they run the table, they would tie the 1977 Montreal Canadiens for the most points in a season. And they are 21 points ahead of the Bruins and Flames, tied for second overall. This is a truly historic season, and we are lucky to be watching it.
But that doesn't matter - at least not from a betting perspective. What matters is what is likely to happen going forward. This team has been truly dominant, but will they be able to carry that momentum all the way to the Cup? Here are six factors to consider when trying to figure out what the future might hold:
Balance: The first thing that stands out when you look at the team is their offensive potency. They have scored 306 goals, which is 35 more than second-best Toronto and 38 more than Calgary and San Jose. So, they have basically scored half a goal per game more than any other team. Ridiculous. Nikita Kucherov is running away with the overall points race and has a bigger lead in assists. Steven Stamkos is fourth in the league in goals scored, and Kucherov and Brayden Point are in the Top 10 as well. Stamkos and Point are in the Top 10 in points, too. Production falls after those three, but having three guys at well over a point per game makes it pretty easy to win games.
However, a team this offensive often isn't very well balanced. But the Lightning have balance. Their goal differential of +100 is so much better than the rest that it's ridiculous - Calgary is second-best at +55. That ridiculous Montreal team of 1977 had the record differential of +216, but this is still a stunningly good number. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins and is fourth in save percentage. And though plus/minus is a very flawed stat, defenseman Ryan McDonough leads the league in that stat. Every team has flaws, but the flaws here are extremely tough to find for this team.
Ability to rebound: Losses are inevitable in the league, and even a team this good has lost 14 times in regulation and four more times in overtime. But what is so impressive about this team is that the team doesn't let themselves fall into ruts. Only twice this year have they lost twice in a row, and they have never lost more than that. The first was back in November, and both were regulation losses that weren't great. And the second was in February, and they still got two points, losing once in a shootout and then in overtime the next game. The team is incredibly good at shaking off issues. And, on the flipside, they are really good at maintaining momentum; they have had 10- and eight-game winning streaks and two seven-game runs.
Coaching: The Lightning, mercifully, learned from the Capitals last year. Last year Barry Trotz was on an expiring deal when he led the Capitals all the way to the Cup. It obviously wasn't too much of a distraction, but it blew up right after the playoffs, and the team was lucky it wasn't an issue before. Jon Cooper is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL right now and the winningest since 2013. His contract was also expiring after this year, but the team just gave him a multi-year extension - a much-deserved reward - to take that potential distraction off the table.
President's Trophy: You would expect that winning the Presidents' Trophy for the most points in the league would be a big boost for the Stanley Cup run, but that hasn't proven to be the case. The last five Presidents' Trophy winners have not won the Cup, and four of the five haven't even made it out of the second round. And only two of the last 15 Trophy winners have hoisted the Cup - with only one other making it to the Cup and losing. Tampa seems incredibly dominant, but this is no guarantee.
Playoff path: The Atlantic Division is very tough. Tampa escapes the big test in the first round, and will play, and likely crush, a wild-card team. The biggest potential issue could be Montreal. The Habs will be badly outmatched, but goalie Carey Price is the best on the planet and can steal a series if he is at his best. The big test will come in the second round, when they will play the winner of the Boston and Toronto series. That should be an epic, and I give Boston a real edge. Boston and Tampa would be an extremely tough series - much tougher than Toronto would be for the Lightning. Then they will likely run into either Washington or Pittsburgh - two teams with no shortage of playoff savvy. And then they will play the Western champ, though Tampa outclasses most of what the conference can throw at them. This is a tough playoff trip, but a manageable one if the team is as good as they could be.
Betting performance: Not surprisingly given their dominance, Tampa has been the best betting team in the league by a healthy margin. It's not hard to turn a profit when you win 77 percent of your games. They are ahead of teams like the Islanders and Flames that are dramatically exceeding expectations - a more typical path to profits.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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