Are the Lightning Following the Trajectory of Cup-Winning Capitals?

Through 15 games this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been a league-average team in essentially every category. They’re currently sixth in the Atlantic Division with an 8-5-2 record (18 points) and they’re three points out of a wild card spot. It’s safe to say this is not where the club or their fans expected them to be at any point this season.

However, there is hope. The Bolts picked up two key wins in the Global Series against the Buffalo Sabres, but there’s an even bigger reason for optimism. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018, but they weren’t exactly the powerhouse everyone thought they might be early in the season.

Related: Hedman Leads Lightning in Global Series Sweep

The Lightning and the 2017-18 Capitals have a lot of similarities so far, and that should excite Lightning fans since the Caps won the Stanley Cup that year.

Simple Stats

Through their first 15 games, the 2017-18 Capitals were 8-6-1 and fourth in the Metropolitan Division. The Lightning have one more point thanks to an overtime loss, but they’re sixth in the Atlantic Division right now due to hot starts from the Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers and Sabres.

The Capitals had 46 goals for and 48 goals against, while the Lightning currently have 51 goals for and 52 goals against. When it was all said and done, the Capitals scored 256 goals for — 16 more than the league average — and gave up 240 — two more than the league average through 82 games.

2018 Stanley Cup championship banner
2018 Stanley Cup championship banner (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Currently, the Lightning have scored one fewer goal than league average (52) and have given up 52 goals against, which is also the league average. They’ve essentially been league average, but it looks like such a big change from last year because they were so dominant offensively. The point here is that the Capitals team that won the Stanley Cup was a top team in the league, but they weren’t as dominant as the Lightning, and that came to their advantage. This year, the Lightning are still a good team, but they have shown so far that they aren’t as dominant as last year.

Hopefully, that favors the Lightning just like it did the Capitals two years ago.

Similar Schedules

The Lightning have had an interesting schedule so far. They have only played 10 away games — 11 if you count both games in Sweden, even though they were the “home” team for one of them — and 13 against Eastern Conference teams. Ten of their first 15 opponents have been against teams that currently hold a playoff spot. It remains to be seen how many of those teams will actually be in the playoffs in April, but they’ve been playing some strong teams.

Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov celebrate (Anders Wiklund/TT via AP)

In the first 15 games for the 2017-18 Capitals, they played nine away games and five games against playoff teams, all of whom were from the Eastern Conference. So, through their first 15 games, the Lightning have had a tougher schedule than the Capitals from two years ago and have managed to earn one more point.

For even more evidence, we can turn to Hockey-Reference’s strength of schedule (SOS). With zero being average, the Lightning have a 0.24 SOS. At the end of the season in 2017-18, the Capitals had a minus-0.04 SOS, meaning their schedule was slightly easier than average.

The Lightning’s schedule should get a bit easier simply based on who they play, but it might not happen right away. For the rest of November, they play nine games — five against Western Conference teams and six against playoff teams. The 2017-18 Capitals schedule didn’t get much easier until mid-December, and that’s when they found their stride, winning 10 of a possible 14 games and getting points in 12 of those games.

Related: Capitals Cup Run Reminiscent of 1997 Red Wings

On paper, the Lightning’s schedule looks relatively average in December, but January is likely when they will pick up a lot of points with a west coast swing that includes games with the Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, all teams who either will not or might not make the playoffs.

Steven Stamkos, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov
Tampa Bay Lightning Steven Stamkos celebrates with Kevin Shattenkirk, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Capitals from two years ago lost their first three games after the All-Star Break, but they got points in two of the three games. If the Lightning can win the games leading up to and after the All-Star Break, they should be just fine en route to the playoffs.

Led By Top Scorers

Through the regular season, the 2017-18 Capitals were led in scoring by Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie — arguably their top five players of that season. Those five were also the leading scorers for the Capitals in the playoffs that year. In fact, Kuznetsov, Ovechkin and Backstrom all had a point per game in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Carlson and Oshie were only three and four points off, respectively.

Washington Capitals Nicklas Backstrom Alex Ovechkin Evgeny Kuznetsov
Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom celebrates his goal with left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Leaders lead. Whether it’s by example or by being vocal in the locker room and on the bench, they find ways to motivate their team. When the Lightning were swept out of the playoffs last season, their leading scorer was defenseman Erik Cernak, a player definitely not known for his scoring abilities. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov each had two points, but Victor Hedman was held pointless, and Brayden Point had just one point in four games.

Right now, the Lightning’s top scorers are Stamkos, Kucherov, Kevin Shattenkirk, Point and Hedman. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson aren’t far behind, but the Lightning will need their leaders to perform when the lights are brighest. That means Stamkos, Kucherov, Hedman and Point need to do what Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Carlson and Backstrom did in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs — set the tone night in and night out to lead their team to a championship.

Avoid Sweeping a Playoff Series

Let’s say the Lightning do make the playoffs at the end of the 2019-20 season. No matter what spot they get — a wild-card spot or first in the Eastern Conference — they must avoid sweeping a playoff series. It sounds strange, but there are two pieces of evidence to back this up. First, look at last year’s playoffs. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning 4-0 and lost to the Boston Bruins in the next round, 4-2. The New York Islanders swept the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-0 and lost in the second round to the Carolina Hurricanes, 4-0, but the Hurricanes were swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. The Bruins ended up losing to the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup final.

No team from the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs who won a round by sweeping their opponent won the next round.

Tampa Bay Lightning Cedric Paquette
Tampa Bay Lightning’s Cedric Paquette (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Second, take a look at the Capitals playoff record in each round in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They beat the Blue Jackets in the first round, 4-2; the Penguins in the second round, 4-2; the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final, 4-3; and the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final, 4-1. The fact that they played more hockey — even though they lost some games — was a huge advantage to them because they could still maintain their chemistry and feel for the game in a playoff atmosphere. Teams that win by a sweep are sitting around for up to a week at a time, doing the best they can to maintain their feel in practice, but that is nothing like a Stanley Cup playoff game.

If the Lightning want to win the Stanley Cup, they need to both avoid getting swept (obviously) and, if possible, avoid sweeping their opponents.

Related: Lightning Cup Window Closing Quickly

There’s a lot of reasons for Lightning fans to be optimistic. The team has played a tough schedule so far and is in the middle of the league in terms of points, but their schedule will get easier as the season goes on. They have had a strangely similar season to the Capitals team that won the Stanley Cup in 2017-18, and although the Lightning are not as dominant as they were last year in the regular season, that might play to their advantage once the playoffs roll around.