Monday, March 18, 2019

Weekend power rankings: The Lightning are the NHL’s best team and they probably won’t win the Cup

We’re​ just three weeks​ away​ from​ the​ start​ of​ the playoffs.​ It’s the very​ best time of​ year,​ with a ton of​​ action, intensity through the roof and the crushing suspense of finding out who’ll be left standing as the season’s best team.

Except that this year, there’s no suspense, because we already know the answer. The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team of the 2018-19 season. There’s really no question about it. Even if they lose every game they play for the rest of the year, they’re still the season’s best and it’s not even close.

Now we just need to wait and see if they actually win the Stanley Cup. However, they probably won’t.

That feels like a weird thing to say. As hockey fans, we’re trained to believe that the Cup winner is the best team. Of course they are. They were the last team standing and they won a big trophy for it. Regular season success is nice, but as the league itself has told us, it’s all about the Cup. We can’t know who’s the best until we’ve seen who survives four rounds and emerges as champion.

Nonsense. This year, we already know. It’s the Lightning.

To be clear, I’m not trying to make a case that the Presidents’ Trophy is somehow the real prize of an NHL season. Most years, there’s so little difference between the top few teams that the difference between finishing first overall and third or fourth doesn’t really tell us anything about which team was actually best.

But not this season. The Lightning aren’t just clearly the best team in the league, they might be the best team of the last quarter-century. They’ve been dominant at pretty much every facet of the game. They’re loaded with stars, with many of them having career years. They’re well-coached, have the league’s best powerplay and penalty kill, are strong in goal and don’t feature any obvious holes anywhere on the roster. If you could wish the perfect cap-era team into existence, it would look a lot like this year’s Lightning.

But they still probably won’t win. And we might as well start getting our heads around that now.

Dom Luszczyszyn currently has the Lightning at about a 25 percent chance to win the Cup, even though he also thinks they may be the single best team of the cap era. That seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. In the NHL’s era of hyper-parity, 25 percent is pretty close to the best you can do.

To understand why, let’s do some math. Imagine a team that was a 70 percent favorite in a playoff series. That’s pretty good. It’s rare for any team to be a 70 percent favorite in a single game, even against the last place team or a tired one that’s starting its backup goalie. There’s more variance in a single game than a seven-game series, but still, 70 percent would be a heavy favorite. Now imagine our team is so strong that they’re a 70 percent favorite against each and every team they could possibly play in the playoffs.

That’s sounds good. And it is. But there’s a problem: If you’re a 70 percent favorite in every series, it’s more likely than not that you won’t even make it to the third round. Our 70 percent team has only a 49 percent chance of winning two straight rounds. And their odds of winning four in a row are only 24 percent.

The Lightning are probably a better than 70 percent favorite over whichever wildcard team they play. But they’re less than that against, say, the Bruins or whoever comes out of the West. Mix in a few injuries or a poorly timed slump and you can see how this might end.

Here’s what will probably happen: The Lightning will go into the playoffs being referred to as overwhelming favorites even though, compared to the rest of the league collectively, they’ll be big underdogs. And at some point, they’ll likely lose. Maybe some key players will get hurt. Maybe they’ll draw an especially tough matchup. Chances are, they’ll just run into a red-hot goalie who’ll steal the series even though Tampa plays better.

And when that happens, the narratives will kick in. Fans and media and maybe even the Lightning themselves will honor the age-old hockey tradition of refusing to accept that sometimes the best team doesn’t win and instead will start looking for reasons why Tampa wasn’t as good as we thought. Odds are we’ll settle on something around their character and leadership and heart. They didn’t want it bad enough. They were good, sure, at least during the season. But the problem is, we’ll tell ourselves, they weren’t the best after all.

And we’ll be wrong. The Lightning are the best team in the league, even if they get swept in the first round. They may not be Stanley Cup champions and we all agreed long ago that that’s what matters most. If and when they get eliminated, they’ll be devastated and their season will feel like a failure. That’s natural and it’s how it should be. The Cup is what counts.

Just don’t fall for the narratives. Instead, accept the reality of today’s NHL: The Lightning are the best, but the best team usually doesn’t win.

On to this week’s power rankings. Hey, I bet you can’t guess who’s going to be ranked No. 1 …

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

One downside of focusing on the top five and bottom five every week is that it doesn’t leave us with much room to talk about the wildcard races in the middle. That might be good news for Canadiens fans, who watched their team stumble through a rough week punctuated by Saturday’s loss to Corey Crawford. Montreal sits three points back of the Blue Jackets and four back of the Hurricanes with just ten games left and the Habs don’t look like they’ll hold the ROW tie-breaker on either. They’re still in it, but their odds look a lot worse than they did when we were breaking them down just one week ago.

In the West, it’s the Wild and the Avalanche chasing the Coyotes and Stars and maybe the Blues. The Avs got a big win yesterday, but didn’t gain all that much ground because the loser point fairy decided to show up and work its magic on pretty much everyone else. Sorry, Colorado, just because you win and all the teams you’re chasing lose doesn’t mean you should gain two points on anyone and that makes sense because (mumble, mumble) closer playoff races (mumble, mumble) and hey look over there it’s the power rankings.

5. Washington Capitals (42-23-7, +20 true goals differential*) – Two goals to 50 for Alexander Ovechkin, who has yet another Rocket Richard Trophy all but wrapped up. And as Sportsnet reminds us, Wayne Gretzky’s unbreakable record remains within his sights.

4. Boston Bruins (43-20-9, +32) – Three straight regulation losses during the week put an end to their points streak and allowed the struggling Leafs to stay in range. More importantly for our purposes, it took some of the pressure off of trying to figure out how to get them higher in the rankings.

>> Read the full post at The Athletic

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