The Tampa Bay Lightning had a history-making season, and it ended with more history made on Tuesday night, when, after racking up 128 points during the regular season – the most since the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings – the Bolts got swept out of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that only squeaked into the playoffs with a win in the next-to-last game of the season.
A lot is made of the “Presidents’ Trophy Curse,” which supposes that the best team during the NHL’s regular season is doomed once the chase for the Stanley Cup begins. In the Lightning’s case, there might be something to the idea of being hindered by their own success, and maybe having lost some edge after being assured of not only a playoff berth, but the league’s best record, for weeks. But it’s not really true: since the Presidents’ Trophy was created to honor the NHL’s top regular season team in 1985-86, eight winners have gone on to capture the Cup. While that seems low, it’s the highest total for any playoff position – the best team may not win with regularity, but it does win more than anyone else.
The chaotic nature of the hockey playoffs, though, may be a stumbling block for the NHL building the kind of narrative that draws in casual fans. The chaos is delightful if you’re already a hockey fan, but the last time the Stanley Cup Final featured the top seed in the Western Conference against the top seed in the Eastern Conference was 2001, when the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche bested the New Jersey Devils in a classic seven-game series that featured arguably the two best goalies in the sport’s history, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, and multiple Hall of Famers skating for each team.
The NBA, in that same stretch of nearly two decades, has featured 1 vs. 1 matchups for the championship… only twice. The Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, while the Cavaliers had their magical rally from 3-1 down to beat the Warriors in 2016. While that’s a bit surprising, given how predictable the NBA playoffs tend to seem to be, this will be the first year since 2010 that the NBA Finals don’t feature LeBron James, and no team seeded lower than fourth in a conference has made the Finals since the Knicks ended the lockout-shortened 1999 season as No. 8 in the East before coming just three wins shy of their first title since 1973.
It’s also probably not a coincidence that 2004-07, when no top seeds made the NBA Finals, is a period for which it feels like the league endured a bit of a dip, culminating in the least-watched Finals in the live television era, the Spurs’ sweep of a Cavaliers team led by a just-entering-his-prime James flanked by a lineup even worse than what surrounded him last season. And as great as the Tim Duncan-era San Antonio teams were, you had to be a basketball diehard to enjoy their methodical work.
The NHL would love to have a problem like a championship matchup featuring players on each side as good as Duncan and James. The best player in the league, Connor McDavid, didn’t even make the playoffs with the Oilers. The biggest shoo-in future Hall of Famer, Sidney Crosby, just got swept away with the Penguins. The Lightning and their raft of pending award winners also now hit the golf course. The rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs will be good and intense – they always are – but, as is so often the case, the Final will appeal almost exclusively to people who would watch any two hockey teams playing for the Cup.