Tim Benz: Numbers from Tampa Bay Lightning postseason run are replicating Penguins' Stanley Cup success

·4 min read

Jun. 30—As the Tampa Bay Lightning march through their Stanley Cup title defense, they are clipping along at a rate reminiscent of past Pittsburgh Penguins achievements.

Coach John Cooper and his team are up 1-0 over the Montreal Canadiens in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final. That's the result of a 5-1 throttling Monday in the series opener.

Nikita Kucherov had three points, with two goals and an assist.

That gives him 30 points so far this postseason. He had 34 during last year's Stanley Cup run.

The only other players who can boast back-to-back 30-point postseasons are Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Gretzky hit that threshold three seasons in a row with the Edmonton Oilers — 1983 (38), 1984 (35), 1985 (47). He did so again in 1987 (34) and 1988 (43).

Lemieux had 44 points in 1991 and 34 points in '92. Most remarkably, he played in only 15 of the Penguins' 21 postseason games in 1992 because of injuries. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy during both of those seasons.

Meanwhile, Gretzky won the Conn Smythe in '85 and '88. Kucherov didn't win it last year, even though he led the club in scoring. His teammate, Victor Hedman, claimed the honor.

Kucherov has also managed to accrue those 30 points in 19 games. The only player to reach that mark faster over the past 25 years was Penguins center Evgeni Malkin in 2009. He finished that season with 36 points and a Conn Smythe. Sidney Crosby's best two playoff point totals were in 2008 (27) and '09 (31).

Pittsburgh native Greg Linnelli joined me for Wednesday's "Breakfast With Benz" podcast. He is the game-day host for the Tampa Bay Lightning Radio Network. And he says Kucherov never fails to impress.

"Kucherov is a unique talent," Linnelli said. "He is not like a Malkin or a Crosby. He's built differently. But he is shifty enough that he eludes defenders. His passing may be better than his shot. And his hockey IQ is off the charts."

Linnelli also drew a Penguins connection between goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Marc-Andre Fleury. Both goalies broke into the league young. And both will likely spend the bulk of their careers with successful franchises. Fleury has been in the playoffs every year since 2007. Vasilevskiy is under contract in Tampa through 2028.

"I think Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the league. I think he has been for quite some time," Linnelli said. "He is a generational type of talent back there. He is going to have numbers — if he stays healthy — that are going to be similar to Marc-Andre Fleury's because he is going to be on some really good teams."

Fleury maneuvered himself into third place all time for regular-season goaltender wins (492) this season. He also has 90 postseason wins, good for fourth all time.

Vasilevsky — who began his NHL career at age 20 — has 190 regular-season victories at age 26, 46 in the playoffs. Fleury — who began his NHL career at age 19 — had 184 regular-season wins by that age, 41 in the playoffs.

Then there's the fact the Lightning may repeat as Stanley Cup champions. They'd be the only team to do so besides the Penguins (2016-17) since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. Already, just by getting to the Cup Final, Tampa joins the 2008-09 Red Wings and Penguins and the 2016-17 Penguins as the only teams over the course of the last 15 years to get to the final round in consecutive seasons.

"They basically revamped their back end through trades and free agency," Linnelli said. "And they've done a really good job of drafting and developing at the forward position, too. So it has been a really good mixture. You can see why they have been put in this position to do what the Penguins did."

Also in the podcast, Linnelli and I talk about the Tampa Bay power play versus Montreal's penalty kill, the chippy nature of Game 1 and the difference between Tampa Bay and other teams the Canadiens have upset this postseason.

Listen: Tim Benz and Greg Linnelli break down the Stanley Cup Final and the Lightning's similarities with past Cup-winning Penguins teams.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.