The Tampa Bay Lightning were almost unstoppable this season, racing to 62 wins in 82 games and the best point total since the NHL’s current system began in 2006.
The Lightning scored 103 more goals than they surrendered, powered by Steven Stamkos’ 45. Other stars of the deep team were Nikita Kucherov, who led the league in points (120) and assists (87); and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was a rock in goal.
“It’s one of the best I’ve ever played with,” said Stamkos, an 11-year veteran, when asked to evaluate his team in January. “I have no concerns about us taking our foot off the gas.”
But that is exactly what happened. The Lightning were swept in their best-of-seven series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it was not even close. Tampa Bay was outscored by 19-8 over four games. Stamkos and Kucherov had been held pointless heading into Tuesday’s series finale, and a slight reawakening from the stars was not nearly enough to stave off a 7-3 defeat that ended their season.
There is a case to be made that the Lightning are the biggest playoff underachievers in sports history. While there have been big playoff busts before, has a team this good ever performed so badly?
Winning the Presidents Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record is hardly a guarantee of playoff success. Six times since the trophy was introduced in 1986, the team that won it lost in the first round.
But all of those teams at least won a game in their series. The worst bust was the 2012 Vancouver Canucks, who lost its opening series 4-1. But with 111 points, they were not as dominant as Tampa Bay, which had 128 this year. And they did win Game 4 of their series against the Los Angeles Kings, who went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Going further back, the 1938 Boston Bruins and 1929 Montreal Canadiens failed to win a playoff game after having the best record. But those were in best-of-five series, and both teams got byes, so they did not technically lose in the first round. And both lost all three games by a single goal.
Several NBA teams in recent years have lost their first playoff series despite having recorded the best regular-season record. But all of them won at least two games in that series. The most egregious failure probably belongs to the 2007 Dallas Mavericks, whose sterling 67-15 record behind Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry was tarnished by a four-games-to-two loss to the eighth-seeded Warriors.
The 2004 Los Angeles Sparks are the only WNBA team with the season’s best record to lose in the first round, dropping a 2-1 series to the Sacramento Monarchs.
Baseball started its multi-round playoff system in 1969. The first team to have the league’s best record and then get swept in the first round was the 1980 Yankees at 103-59, who lost to the Kansas City Royals. The Los Angeles Angels in 2014 were 98-64 and were also swept by the Royals in a five-game series.
But though both of those teams had fine regular seasons, they did not approach the dominance of the Lightning this season. The 2001 Seattle Mariners (116-46) and 1906 Chicago Cubs (116-36) would be considered big postseason disappointments. But the Mariners made it through one playoff round before losing to the New York Yankees, and the Cubs, playing in an era when the World Series was the entire postseason, lost four games to two.
The NFL, of course, is a different animal as its playoffs consist of single-elimination games. The undefeated 2007 New England Patriots are remembered for losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, but won two playoff games first. The worst loss at the first hurdle belongs to the 2011 Green Bay Packers, who were 15-1, but lost to the 9-7 Giants, 37-20.
Only two top seeds have lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In 1998, the Stanford women’s team, 21-5 and seeded No. 1 in their region, lost to No. 16 Harvard. Last season, the Virginia men matched that ignominious feat when they lost to Maryland Baltimore-County.
That Virginia team was No. 1 in the country after a 31-2 season. Though it was only one game, their defeat is probably the closest to the flameout that the Lightning endured.
And Virginia went on to win the title the next year, a possible sign of hope for the Lightning Tuesday night after their season ended in disaster.