Can Lightning become the NHL’s first wild card to win a Stanley Cup?

TAMPA — As the Lightning embark on their latest playoff run, in a temperature-controlled arena in sunny south Florida, weather will nonetheless be a factor.

This time around, they’re skating smack into the headwinds of history.

Not that they’re fazed. Since the NHL introduced two wild-card teams into its refurbished playoff format a decade ago (excluding 2020 and 2021, when the postseason format was altered due to COVID-19), no wild card ever has won the Stanley Cup.

All of which is news to the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 wild-card team.

“Didn’t even know,” veteran forward Nick Paul said.

“We know we’re probably going to be on the road for the majority of the playoffs as far as we go, but I wasn’t aware of that,” forward Conor Sheary said. “So it’s not something that’s talked about.”

Nonetheless, a season rife with historical significance (Nikita Kucherov joining the 100-assist club, Steven Stamkos becoming the franchise leader in games played), can include a little more should the Lightning’s playoff beards get extra bushy. Only two wild-card teams — the 2017 Predators and 2023 Panthers — have even reached the Stanley Cup Finals.

But a parallel exists between those Panthers and these Bolts: Both needed late-season surges to secure playoff spots.

Just before a mild swoon to end the regular season, the Lightning won 11 of 14 to secure their wild-card status. The Panthers needed a 6-1-1 finish last season to sneak in, then stunned the hockey world by rallying from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Bruins (who had set league records for wins and points in a season) in the opening round.

Veteran wing Anthony Duclair, a Lightning trade-deadline acquisition in early March, was part of the late-season runs in both Tampa and Sunrise.

“Our playoffs started, I think, a month before playoffs,” Duclair said of the Panthers’ 2022-23 run.

“We were trying to get that last wild-card spot, so obviously the intensity ramped up even before playoffs. I think that helped us going in, just the mentality and the preparation, stuff like that. Every game was huge. So yeah, it definitely helped being in that mindset early on.”

Sort of like his current club’s late-season approach? “Yeah, a little bit for sure,” added Duclair, whose team opens the postseason Sunday against the Panthers in Sunrise.

“It’s hard to get in (the postseason) in this league, we all know it. And once you’re in, you kind of go step by step from there and take it day by day. I think last year just kind of proved it. You’ve just got to get in, and then anything can happen.”

Hence the reason the Lightning seem oblivious to the statistical odds stacked against them. Since the dawn of this millennium, which predates the current 10-year-old format (top three teams in each division, two wild cards), only one eighth-seeded team (2012 Kings) has won a Stanley Cup. No six- or seven-seed has won it.

“Listen, whatever happens in the regular season, it’s great,” Stamkos said. “You can be proud of being on a team that’s qualified for the playoffs, but then it’s a new season.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Wildest of wild cards

A look at the wild-card playoff teams in the four major North American sports leagues that have won titles in the last decade:

NHL: None

NFL: 2020 Bucs

MLB: 2023 Rangers, 2019 Nationals, 2014 Giants

NBA: None*

* NBA has no wild-card teams per se, but no playoff team seeded lower than third has won a title in the last decade

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