Lightning clinch Presidents’ Trophy – but history tells us playoff success is no guarantee

Not that there was really much doubt, but the Tampa Bay Lightning made it official Monday: with a victory over the Arizona Coyotes, the Bolts locked down the Presidents’ Trophy and etched their place in the annals of hockey history.

For the Lightning, winning the Presidents’ Trophy, the first in franchise history, is really the cherry on top of what has been a phenomenal regular season performance the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the post-lockout era. In fact, Tampa Bay has an opportunity to set a new high-water mark for point total in the post-lockout era. Already at 116 points, the Lightning sit a mere two points away from matching the fourth-best single-season point total of this era, and with potential to compile another 18 points before the season is through, Tampa Bay is in legitimate contention to surpass the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings’ 124-point post-lockout mark. Not only that, but by managing to secure the hardware in 73 games, the Lightning have become the second-fastest team to clinch top spot in the NHL since the Presidents’ Trophy was first awarded in 1985-86.

Helping Tampa Bay to etch its name on the Presidents’ Trophy so early, of course, is the chasm they have put between themselves and the rest of the field. Truly, the race hasn’t been all that close for some time now, and following Monday’s victory, the Lightning find themselves 21 points clear of the next-closest competitors in the standings, the 95-point Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins, and that, too, puts Tampa Bay in some unique company.

You see, since the beginning of the expansion era, several teams have put up gaudy point totals and left the rest of the field in the dust. Altogether, there are 12 instances of a team finishing atop the NHL standings by 10 or more points, but the Lightning could end up in a far more exclusive club as only twice in the past 50-plus seasons has one team been so head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league that they finished in top spot in the NHL by more than 20 points. That distinction belongs to the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

The bigger question, though, is how this regular season success will translate to the playoffs, because outstanding as the Lightning’s success has been since the beginning of October, it could all be for naught if Tampa Bay comes up short when the games matter most. And while there’s no knowing what’s to come for the Lightning until the post-season is played, it might be worthwhile to look back at how teams who have had similarly dominant regular season performances fared under playoff pressure.

Washington Capitals – 2015-16
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 11 points
Playoff result: Lost in second round

For some, this was the last straw when it came to picking the Capitals to ever find any measure of true post-season success. A star-studded lineup headlined by Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby seemed destined to finally break their playoff curse. Instead, the Capitals ran into the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round and that’s where Washington flamed out, dropping four of the final five games of the series.

Vancouver Canucks – 2010-11
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 10 points
Playoff result: Lost in Stanley Cup final

The playoff run that began with the so-called slaying of the dragon. Another chapter in the Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks’ heated playoff rivalry was written – and closed – when Alex Burrows buried an overtime winner in Game 7 of the opening round. It wasn’t entirely smooth sailing from there on out, though, with a brief second-round scare against the Nashville Predators. In the Cup final, the Boston Bruins took the series on the strength of Tim Thomas’ goaltending. The red-hot keeper stopped the Canucks in their tracks in the Cup-deciding Game 7.

Detroit Red Wings – 2005-06
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 11 points
Playoff result: Lost in first round

Coming out of the lockout, the keys to the castle were turned over to the next generation in Detroit. It was time for Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg to be the driving forces behind the Red Wings’ success. Detroit’s new duo was exceptional, too, posting 87- and 85-point campaigns, respectively, and powering the Red Wings to the Presidents’ Trophy. But then came the first-round stunner. Goaltender Manny Legace was out-duelled by Edmonton Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson, leaving Detroit with nothing more than disappointment.

Detroit Red Wings – 2001-02
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 15 points
Playoff result: Won Stanley Cup

What a roster. Up front, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille and, of course, Steve Yzerman. Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios on the blueline. In goal? Dominik Hasek. It’s no wonder the Red Wings not only won the Presidents’ Trophy but went on to win the Stanley Cup. However, they didn’t get there without a scare. The Colorado Avalanche had Detroit on the ropes, one loss away from exiting the post-season in the Western Conference final, before the Red Wings waxed the Avalanche in Games 6 and 7. Detroit took the series by outscoring Colorado 9-0 over the final two games, and went on to dismantle the Carolina Hurricanes in five games.

Detroit Red Wings – 1995-96
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 27 points
Playoff result: Lost in conference final

The largest margin between the top team and the next-best club in post-expansion history. Having lost in the Stanley Cup final the season prior, the Red Wings entered the post-season as odds-on favorites for obvious reasons, but the Avalanche had a secret weapon that stopped Detroit short in the conference final: Patrick Roy. Colorado’s star netminder held the Red Wings’ offense to two or fewer goals in four of the six games and sent Detroit packing with a 24-save performance in Game 6.

Pittsburgh Penguins – 1992-93

Presidents’ Trophy margin: 10 points
Playoff result: Lost in second round

Led by Mario Lemieux, who scored 69 goals and 160 points in 60 games (!), the Penguins were an absolute juggernaut. The offense featured four 100-point players – Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rich Tocchet and Ron Francis – and then some kid named Jaromir Jagr, who fired home 34 goals and 94 points in his third season in the bigs. But that didn’t stop them from getting stunned by the New York Islanders in the second round. Five minutes into overtime of Game 7, David Volek delivered the dagger that halted the Penguins’ pursuit of three consecutive Cups.

Edmonton Oilers – 1983-84
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 15 points
Playoff result: Won Stanley Cup

The beginning of the dynasty. After falling short against the New York Islanders the year prior, the Oilers finished atop their league and refused to be stopped en route to the first of four Stanley Cups over the next five campaigns. Leading the way was Wayne Gretzky, who scored 205 points in the regular season before adding another 35 points in 19 playoff games. He was OK at the whole hockey thing.

Montreal Canadiens – 1976-77
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 15 points
Playoff result: Won Stanley Cup

Before the 1995-96 Red Wings came the 1976-77 Canadiens, who won the regular season crown by 20 points, at the time the largest margin in the post-expansion era. Montreal’s 132 points are the most any team has accrued in a single season, and it’s no wonder they were able to do so with a roster that featured nine Hall of Famers. Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt formed a dynamite one-two punch atop the roster, and Ken Dryden was absolutely stunning in the playoffs, posting a .932 save percentage and four shutouts.

Montreal Canadiens – 1972-73
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 13 points
Playoff result: Won Stanley Cup

See above, but add a couple more Hall of Famers. These were the days before Lafleur and Shutt led the way. Instead, these Canadiens were paced by Frank Mahovolich and Yvan Cournoyer. Then only in his second full season in the NHL, Dryden was exceptional in the playoffs.

Boston Bruins – 1971-72
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 10 points
Playoff result: Won Stanley Cup

The Bruins weren’t about to make the same mistake they had one year earlier, and they steamrolled over everyone in the playoffs. Boston won 10 of its first 11 games in the playoffs – the only loss was an overtime defeat in Game 2 of the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs – and the Bruins took care of business in six games against the New York Rangers in the final.

Boston Bruins – 1970-71
Presidents’ Trophy margin: 12 points
Playoff result: Lost in first round

The defending Stanley Cup champions ran roughshod over the league in the regular season, but their quest for back-to-back titles fell well short and did so after it appeared the Bruins had the opening round series against the Canadiens wrapped up. After a 7-3 victory in Game 5, Boston was one win away from advancing, but some kid named Ken Dryden stymied the Bruins’ attack in Games 6 and 7 as Montreal came from behind to take the series in seven and oust their rivals.

So, what does this tell us about the Lightning’s chances? If anything, that Tampa Bay winning the Stanley Cup is not the fait accompli the standings suggest. Matter of fact, while five of the 12 teams who have finished 10 or more points ahead of the next-best squad in the standings have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, only one of the six teams that has done so in the past 30 years has lifted the chalice come season’s end. And while the Lightning will look to make that two, standing in the winner’s circle is no guarantee