Nearly five months later, Andrei Vasilevskiy was still searching for answers.
Speaking in a quiet boardroom at a downtown Chicago hotel in early September, the goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning was barely whispering as he tried to explain his team’s stunning sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of last spring’s playoffs.
Tampa had been chasing history throughout the regular season, winding up tied for the most wins in NHL history with 62 and securing the league’s fourth-highest point total at 128.
The Lightning were riding high after finishing 30 points clear of the Blue Jackets in the overall standings.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners were expected to steamroll Columbus and whatever other Eastern Conference foes dared block the path to an inevitable Stanley Cup triumph.
Then a funny thing happened — Columbus took Tampa’s best punch early, countered quickly and delivered an eye-popping result that sent the Lightning packing as the first team eliminated after just seven days of post-season action.
“Definitely a big experience for us … bad experience, but still an experience,” Vasilevskiy said. “We’ll put that behind us and we’ll move on.
“All together we’ll figure it out.”
Tampa had the NHL’s best power play, was tied for the best penalty kill, owned the league’s best record both at home and on the road, and dominated the Atlantic Division with a 23-5-0 mark.
Nikita Kucherov topped the league with 128 points and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP, but was suspended for one of four playoff games and finished the series with just two assists.
Vasilevskiy, who won his first Vezina Trophy as the league’s best netminder during the regular season, said after dominating the schedule for so long, the Lightning were unable to flick the switch.
“We just got too comfortable in the regular season,” he said. “In our heads, our thoughts (were) like, ‘Oh, we’ll be all right in the playoffs because we’re doing great in the regular season.’
“But the reality is that in the playoffs, it’s way different hockey. We just weren’t ready for that. We just got too comfortable.”
Vasilevskiy said he’s confident the team has what it takes to come back stronger from the bitter disappointment in 2019-2020 and live up to expectations.
“The regular season was great,” he said. “We were on a good run. In the playoffs, our tank was empty because of that. We went straight down because of that.”
Here’s a look at some other storylines heading into the 2019-20 NHL season:
Can the Blues find more glory?
The St. Louis Blues went from the NHL’s basement in January to Stanley Cup champions in June. Led by centre Ryan O’Reilly, who won both the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward in the regular season and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, the Blues picked up the franchise’s first-ever title. But repeating is a different beast. Other than the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017, no team has done the deed back to back in the last two decades. Can goalie Jordan Binnington — the rookie that burst onto the scene to backstop St. Louis — continue his outstanding play? The Blues have mostly the same roster coming back, but they won’t be surprising anyone. “There’s nothing better in the game of hockey than winning,” O’Reilly said. “When you get a taste of it, the expectation is, ‘Let’s do this again. Let’s show the world again how good we are.’ It’s just that natural feeling. You want to keep going.”
Canada’s cup drought
As most hockey fans north of the 49th parallel are aware, the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup was the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. The Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs looked like the best bets to end the drought last season — that will again be the case in 2019-20 — before getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs. The Winnipeg Jets still have lots of talent up front after making the Western Conference final in 2018, but their defence has undergone major changes. The Montreal Canadiens just missed the playoffs last season, while the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers are hoping to make a return. The rebuilding Ottawa Senators should be better than last year as their young roster continues to mature, but another 31st-place finish isn’t out of the question.
Another reboot in oil country
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Speaking of the Oilers, Connor McDavid appears to have healed after a scary knee injury at the end of the last season. The star centre finished second in NHL scoring with 116 points, while teammate Leon Draisaitl was fourth (105 points). But those two standout campaigns weren’t nearly enough as Edmonton missed the playoffs by 11 points. The Oilers have a new general manager with Ken Holland and new head coach in Dave Tippett. James Neal was brought to town after one underwhelming season in Calgary in a trade for fellow winger Milan Lucic, while another Flames transplant — Mike Smith — will share goaltending duties with Mikko Koskinen. Edmonton has missed the playoffs in three of McDavid and Draisaitl’s four seasons together, and need desperately to give the franchise catalysts some help.
Jack n’ Kaap lead rookie class
Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko went 1-2 at June’s NHL draft and will be forever linked not only because of where they were chosen, but the teams that did the picking. Hughes was selected by the New Jersey Devils, while Kakko was scooped by the New York Rangers at No. 2. The rivalry between the Devils and Rangers should pick up thanks to these exciting rookies and a couple of big-name additions — Artemi Panarin in New York and P.K Subban in New Jersey. As for other first-year players to look out for, Cale Makar turned heads when the defenceman debuted for the Colorado Avalanche in the playoffs, while Quinn Hughes, Jack’s older brother, is the best defence prospect Vancouver has seen in a long time.