BRANDON — They have been dressed and ready to go for three years.
Skates sharpened, sticks taped, beards grown. They have sweated in the preseason, bled in the regular season and dreamed of the postseason.
And yet, when the lights dimmed, the music swelled and the puck dropped for the Stanley Cup finals, the Maple Leafs may as well have had their faces pressed against the arena glass.
The Panthers, too. And the Hurricanes, Bruins, Rangers and Penguins.
For three years, the Lightning have crushed the hopes of Eastern Conference teams in the playoffs with the most dominant run of postseason victories since the New York Islanders four decades ago.
And, making matters more infuriating, the Lightning have looked beatable in each one of those regular seasons.
Tampa Bay won only seven of 21 games against the Bruins, Hurricanes, Panthers, Rangers, Penguins and Maple Leafs last year in the regular season. If you want to stretch it over three years, the Lightning are 26-30 against those six rivals from October to April.
And yet Tampa Bay is 24-9 against them in the playoffs.
That’s remarkable. And, depending on your point of view, a little comical.
But is it sustainable?
The Lightning have been weakened by salary-cap restrictions while the rest of the Eastern Conference has gradually been getting stronger. So have we reached critical mass in 2022-23? Has the time come for another franchise to represent the Eastern Conference in the Cup final?
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas seem to think so.
Defending champion Colorado is the current favorite to repeat, but Toronto, Florida and Carolina are the next three teams listed in most sports books. Tampa Bay is fifth with the Rangers and Penguins not too far down the list.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the six challengers from the Eastern Conference that could, potentially, stand between the Lightning and the Stanley Cup.
2021-22 record: 46-25-11
Why the Penguins could win: Do you have to ask? From the time Sidney Crosby was 19 years old, the Penguins have made the playoffs 16 consecutive seasons and won three Stanley Cups. Realizing the window is closing on this era, the Penguins brought Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang back for one more hurrah with Crosby. After giving up an average of four goals a game in a first-round loss to the Rangers last season, the Penguins also revamped their defensive corps, bringing in Rutta, among others.
Why the Penguins could fail: As much Hall of Fame talent as they have, the Penguins have not won a playoff series since 2018. Like the Bruins, this group could use some rocking chairs in the locker room. Malkin is 36 while Crosby, Letang and Petry are all 35. The Metropolitan Division is not as stacked as the Atlantic, but Pittsburgh will eventually have to get past Florida, Toronto and Tampa Bay.
Fear factor: Very, very slim.
2021-22 record: 51-26-5
Painful loss: Erik Haula
Why the Bruins could win: If you extrapolate results from the shortened 2021 season, Boston has played at a 100-point pace for five consecutive years. The Bruins are second to the Lightning in regular-season victories over that span and have given up fewer goals than any team in the NHL. The core of the team remained intact when Patrice Bergeron decided not to retire and the Bruins opted not to deal David Pastrnak. Their top line is stout and defenseman Charlie McAvoy has finished in the top 5 of Norris Trophy balloting the past two seasons.
Why the Bruins could fail: Boston could be playing catch-up much of the season. Brad Marchand (hips) and McAvoy (shoulder) are both expected to miss the first couple of months of the season to injuries. The Bruins also have some of the same worries as the Lightning when it comes to the age of the core group. Bergeron is 37, Krejci is 36 and Marchand is 34. If they stay healthy all year, Boston could be formidable come spring. But that’s a big ask.
Fear factor: More of a sleeper than a threat.
2021-22 record: 52-24-6
Notable addition: Vincent Trocheck
Painful loss: Ryan Strome
Why the Rangers could win: The Rangers went from years of mediocrity to scaring the bejeebers out of the Lightning in the Eastern Conference final last season. Adding Trocheck to a top-six with Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider gives New York a formidable offense, even if it’s a little top-heavy. The real key for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who won the Vezina Trophy and outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy for much of the conference final.
Why the Rangers could fail: New York did not do a whole lot to address depth problems. They could be similar to the 2019 Hurricanes who outperformed expectations under a new coach, but could not maintain that trajectory the following season. Shesterkin was the real deal, but asking a young goalie to carry a team on his back in consecutive seasons is not usually a winning formula.
Fear factor: Surprisingly muted for a team that shined last postseason.
2021-22 record: 54-20-8
Notable additions: Paul Stastny, Brent Burns, Max Pacioretty
Painful losses: Vincent Trocheck, Ian Cole, Tony DeAngelo, Nino Niederreiter
Why the Hurricanes could win: Carolina reached the conference final in Rod Brind’Amour’s first season as head coach in 2019, but has struggled to take the next step forward. With that in mind, the Hurricanes had a bold offseason, saying goodbye to three of their top six scorers while bringing in Pacioretty and Burns. The defense remains one of the best in the NHL with goaltender Frederik Andersen finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting.
Why the Hurricanes could fail: The Hurricanes took a huge risk on Pacioretty. He’ll be 34 in November and is coming off an Achilles injury that will keep him sidelined for at least the first half of the season. He could be a big boost to the lineup in the spring, but that’s asking an awful lot for a player stepping into a new lineup after almost a year on the sideline.
Fear factor: A clear and present danger.
2021-22 record: 58-18-6
Notable additions: Matthew Tkachuk, Marc Staal, coach Paul Maurice
Painful losses: Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Mason Marchment, MacKenzie Weegar
Why the Panthers could win: So let’s start with the obvious. The Panthers were the NHL’s best team in the regular season before being swept by the Lightning in the second round. To remedy that problem, they boldly traded Huberdeau and Weegar to acquire Tkachuk, who gives them a nasty presence come playoff time. Florida led the NHL in goals by a wide margin in 2021-22 and there’s no reason to think they won’t be scoring four to five goals on a fairly regular basis.
Why the Panthers could fail: Giving up an MVP candidate such as Huberdeau to acquire Tkachuk was bold. Including a top defenseman such as Weegar in the deal may have been overkill. And then there is the decision to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette to hire Maurice, who has been behind the bench for more games than any coach in NHL history without winning a Stanley Cup. Maurice is 9-9 in playoff series in his career but, in his defense, he’s never had a team with this much talent.
Fear factor: Off the charts. For opponents and Panthers fans.
2021-22 record: 54-21-7
Notable additions: Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov
Painful losses: Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev
Why the Maple Leafs could win: The simplest explanation? Toronto is the most talented team in the East. The Maple Leafs have reigning Hart Trophy winner Auston Matthews leading an explosive offense that might be even deeper than Florida. And while Campbell had a 31-9-6 record in net, he was exposed by the Lightning in the playoffs. So Toronto wisely addressed the situation by acquiring Murray and Samsonov to take over goaltending duties.
Why the Maple Leafs could fail: Um, not enough valium in Canada? As well as the Maple Leafs played last season, they still failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Again. It’s difficult to measure exactly how much pressure is on this team, but Toronto has not won a single postseason series since 2004. The more they win in the regular season — and they will win a lot in 2022-23 — the Maple Leafs will feel a corresponding level of anxiety heading into the playoffs.
Fear factor: Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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