The inside and outside of arenas are now empty and the Tampa Bay Lightning are the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Champions, leaving only bet collections, classless drunken interviews, egos, thank-you's, and post-series debates to satisfy the void of no more hockey. One percolating debate is, how did the Tampa Bay Lightning really win? Salary Cap, and more of it than any other team, benefiting from consistent inconsistent officiating, and bounces that follow talented players are three considerations to explore.
The fact the Lightning are the Stanley Cup Champions is simple enough to digest if that’s the only thing you choose to consume from the playoffs and that’s all most fans of the team will likely care about. Sports fans in general however, seem to look for the beyond-the-game news like who played hurt, who’s staying, who’s going, what was said behind the scenes, players post-game comments about each other, the questionable officiating, and this year how much one team went over the salary cap. The last item seems to be the “one of these things doesn’t belong here” because it isn’t something that happens very often. In fact, the last team to win a Stanley Cup with a roster over the cap was the 2015 Chicago Blackhawks.
Did the Tampa Bay Lightning cheat? Technically, no because the NHL allows for the salary cap to not count during the playoffs. So, when the recently shirtless and acuity lacking Kucherov was deactivated for the entire season, it freed up his salary dollars for the Lightning to improve the salary of other players and keep them in the fold. It just so happened that Kucherov was recovering the entire season and was then ready for game 1 of the Stanley Cup – convenient. Is it a good rule? No, and that’s on the NHL, not necessarily the Tampa Bay Lightning because any team with a smart enough general manager would likely take advantage of it too. I have to believe that once the common fan hears that however, they raise an eyebrow, squint a little and say “huh! one team was allowed to have more money to pay players than the other team?” Yes, the Tampa Bay Lightning had about a 17.3-million-dollar overhead, with about 10 million of that being real dollars that went to players who had an impact on the outcome of games throughout the playoffs. Advantage Lightning on salary cap.
The NHL officiating might be some of the worst I’ve seen in 40 years of watching hockey dating back to viewing it on my 12-inch antenna black and white kitchen tv. Unfortunately, when I think of the 2021 playoffs, I’ll always think that Lee-O’Rourke-Sutherland were the real in-game line to watch because they were so prominent in the game story. I’ve called them out over and over as they chose to ignore egregious acts and then fold like a sheet in the wind on the whisper of words between players. If you’re a numbers fan, you could look at some of the games in the final series and argue the penalties were almost even. In game 2 (20 min), game 3 (2 min), and game 5 (8 min) where both teams had an equal number of penalty minutes, while in game 1 (8 min – 6 min) and game 4 (20 min – 12 min), Tampa had the advantage. In the overall series Montreal had 58 penalty minutes to Tampa Bay’s 48. Sometimes, just because it looks even on paper (retired referee Tim Peel style and the NHL’s "make it even" fiasco) it doesn’t mean it was even on the ice. Arguably, both teams’ penalty kill was so effective that it didn’t really impact the number of goals scored. The non-calls and the timing of some calls do (and did) however make a big difference. Tampa Bay got a lot of breaks in the non-call department, just ask Corey Perry who had his nose come apart again, Josh Anderson who was hooked, grabbed, and slammed into a post, Brendan Gallagher who wore his scars on his face, Cole Caufield who was head locked, and so on. Now, while the refs didn’t score the goals, in most games they played a bigger part than they needed to (and not just in this series). Arguably, advantage Lightning.
Extra cap money for talent and officiating aside, the Tampa Bay Lightning are a good team on the ice, from the net outwards. One thing that happens with good teams and talented players is that the puck follows the scorers, sticks to the goalies, and bounces the right way more times than not. While Carey Price tried to shoulder the blame, calling himself out on the first couple of games, only to be defended by his captain, Shea Weber, some of those goals were just fortuitous bounces for the Lightning, like the Ben Chiarot’s I’m going to knock it away with my glove and it ends up going in the net past Price. In the end, the Lightning got it done, talent, skills, and bounces included, and they can’t be faulted for being a well-balanced team who through and through were able to put a superior product together through whatever means available to them. Advantage Lightning on the depth of skill and talent.
The integrity of the opinion has always looked beyond the love of one team or a country and often identified mutual shortcomings, but I suppose everyone tries to find their justification for dismissing an opinion that might be a bit different than their own. This much I know, opinions will be forgotten, and the NHL history books will show The Tampa Bay Lightning are back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions (but should they have an asterisk beside that?)
The Thunder behind the Lightning’s win can arguably be identified as advantages through a salary cap loophole, timely officiating that impacted the flow of the games, and being able to assemble a very talented team through means perhaps not available to everyone in the NHL. As we head into the summer, I believe that like a good and talented team, the puck will follow, stick, and bounce accordingly, even off the ice.
This is an opinion article by Guido Piraino of The Monthly Social Podcast. It may also be heard on The Path Radio Mix Online. You can read other opinion articles on the blog page. For sports content, please consider The Coach's Call YouTube Podcast.