The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, the winningest hockey team of all-time has fallen in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs to the second wild card in the Eastern Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Lightning finished off their regular season with a record of 62-16-4, 12 wins more than any other team in the league. They took home the Presidents’ Trophy for most points and tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most regular season wins in a National Hockey League (NHL) season.
Tampa Bay also wraps up the 2018-19 campaign with the fourth most points in NHL history at 128. The three teams ahead of them are the 1976-77 Montréal Canadiens (132), 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings (131) and the 1977-78 Montréal Canadiens (129). Both Montréal teams took home the Stanley Cup while the Red Wings fell in the penultimate round to the eventual champions, the Colorado Avalanche. The Lightning are the first team in NHL history to win the Presidents’ Trophy and get swept in the first round of a best-of-seven series.
Recent history has shown us that regular season success does not always translate to a championship. The Lightning are now the fourth team (one from each of the four major sports leagues) in the past 20 years to fall short of a championship after having the greatest single season W/L record in their respective leagues history. They join the 2001 Seattle Mariners, the 2007 New England Patriots and the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors.
The Mariners lost in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) to the New York Yankees in five games after setting a record with 116 regular season wins. The Patriots became the first team to go undefeated in a 16-game NFL season only to fall to the wild-card Giants in the Super Bowl. And the Warriors set an NBA record with 73 wins before falling to Lebron’s Cavaliers.
Why do these historically great teams continue to crumble under pressure? In my opinion, it comes down to two things – the expectations and pressures to “finish the job” paired with the underdog mentality of the opponent.
The ‘07 Patriots were 12-point favorites heading into Super Bowl XLII, tied for the sixth largest spread in Super Bowl history. The 2015-16 Warriors were 2/1 favorites to win The Finals and were up 3-1 to start the series. The ‘01 Mariners went into the ALCS against the New York Yankees with 21 more regular season wins. The 2018-19 Lightning? They held the best odds to win the Stanley Cup by far at 2/1 with the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins following at 8/1 and 9/1 respectively. The Columbus Blue Jackets found themselves in the cellar with worst odds in all of the NHL at 33/1.
Sports fans are led to believe that talk and speculation about the result of a sporting event does not affect the players. “We don’t listen to the outside noise,” many athletes claim. However, we are not dealing with robots here, these athletes are human and experience the same emotions and stress as you and I.
For a team like Tampa Bay, the pressure of being such a huge favorite paired with their historic season puts a lot of pressure on a team. They were expected to win the Cup, and to get swept in the first round is not only a failure, it’s flat out embarrassing.
On the other hand, a team like the Blue Jackets were playing with house money and their victory is a true Cinderella story. There is little to no pressure when your opponent is so highly favored. If they had lost, it was expected. This gives underdogs more of a reason to play their hardest and “leave it all on the ice.”
Everybody loves a good underdog story, and this year’s Columbus Blue Jackets have just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NHL history.
Let’s see how far they can skate.