It seemed to be a miracle feat when the 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins survived a battering playoff run to win their second-consecutive Stanley Cup. It was the first back-to-back Stanley Cups in the salary cap era, which began in 2005, and the first consecutive championships since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings.
Now, that Penguins team has company as back-to-back champions both in the 21st century and the salary cap era as the Tampa Bay Lightning completed their back-to-back championship run with a five-game win over the Montreal Canadiens.
Of course, Tampa Bay did not have to play a full 82-game schedule, nor did they have a short offseason. But back-to-back Cups is still a feat.
The Penguins teams that won those championships were as different as any two teams which lifted the Stanley Cup. The 2016 Pittsburgh Penguins were oppressively fast. They took away all time and space of opposing defensemen via their forecheck and hounded opponents up and down the ice with their speed. The 2016 Penguins were also gritty and uber-talented, with Sidney Crosby at the top and Phil Kessel on the third line.
That team set in motion a league-wide dash to young players and speed, which cast heavy-footed veterans aside.
The 2020 and 2021 Lightning cannot claim a league-changing strategy, but instead, they are a culmination of the speedy play and big, physical players to execute it.
It will also be impossible for other teams to fully copy the Tampa Bay roster as it carries something close to a $100 million salary-cap hit.
But the philosophy is something to emulate: Speed, toughness, size, and skill. Tampa Bay has all four, plus stout defense and elite goaltending.
So, who wins between the 2016 & 17 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. 2020 and 2021 Tampa Bay Lighting?
There is some roster turnover and injuries for each team (such as Kris Letang in 2017 and Alex Killorn in 2021). No team keeps its lines perfectly intact (such as Kessel being a third liner in 2016 and largely a second liner in 2017), so don’t get fanboy twisted that the rules of the game are loose. This isn’t a scientific study. It’s a hockey eyes test. We’ll try to put both teams’ best foot forward.
Jake Guentzel-Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary vs. Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Nikita Kucherov
On paper, the Penguins have a clear advantage because of Crosby in the middle. But that doesn’t include Point’s unbelievable playoff runs that had Conn Smythe written all over them and Kucherov’s fresh legs.
Point popped 23 points (14-9-23) in 24 games this season and 33 points (14-19-33) in the 2020 run.
Crosby scored 27 points in the second run, as he and Jake Guentzel were nearly unstoppable. The Penguins went through the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and the lock-down defense of the Ottawa Senators before surging past the pounding Nashville Predators.
Tampa Bay’s first run was a little unusual. Or, a lot unusual. They won the first, and hopefully only, bubble contained Stanley Cup. The playoffs began nearly five months after the conclusion of the regular season, so it wasn’t a continuation of the regular season, and bodies were a lot fresher.
Gritty Penguins winger Chris Kunitz could pop in, too.
We like Crosby to limit Tampa Bay in this matchup, but Kucherov would have earned a few points. Tampa Bay didn’t encounter a top-line half as good as the Penguins’ top line, so factor that, too.
You may think the heavy Tampa Bay defense would handcuff Guentzel and Sheary, but the duo scored points against the all-star Nashville Predators defensemen.
Officiating would play a role. Are we playing the obstruction rules or using the NHL rulebook?
Either way, advantage Penguins.
Bryan Rust-Evgeni Malkin-Patric Hornqvist vs. Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-Steven Stamkos
The battle of the injured six. Malkin was never close to 100% in the Penguins cup runs, but with one arm or leg, he fed linemates scoring opportunities. Killorn missed the last few games of the Stanley Cup FInal, and Steve Stamkos has battled injuries over the past few years, too.
The 2017 version of Bryan Rust was not the 27-goal 2021 version, or this matchup would be very different. This is a clear advantage for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and we’ll assume a several-goal differential here.
This is where things get even more subjective. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ bottom six had a heavy hand in both Stanley Cups. From the famed H-B-K line to Matt Cullen’s career rebirth, the Penguins third and fourth lines won a few games.
So, too, did Blake Coleman, Patrick Maroon, Barclay Goodrow, and the Tampa Bay Lightning pluggers.
If I pick the Penguins in this matchup, I’m a homer. If I pick against them, I’m selling short one of the best lines in recent memory–The Carl Hagelin-Nick Bonino-Phil Kessel line, which was primarily featured in the 2016 run.
I think the Penguins bottom six would have scored an extra goal or two. In the 2016 run, Phil Kessel played the best hockey of his life, and that factors into the equation. The man who later filled the Stanley Cup with hot dogs to troll his critics scored 22 and 23 points, respectively (He played much better hockey in ’16 than ’17, so we’re taking the ’16 version).
And the offense Matt Cullen produced in 2016 (2-7-9) was slightly ahead of Tampa Bay’s fourth line center Tyler Johnson produced in either Tampa Bay run (seven points in each).
But Tampa Bay’s bottom-six would have pounded the Penguins.
Another slight advantage for the Penguins, but it would have been a joy to watch.
This is where the Tampa Bay Lightning shine, and the Pittsburgh Penguins would suffer.
Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are a fine top pairing, but Victor Hedman is a consistent Norris Trophy winner.
Ian Cole and Justin Schultz were a fine second pairing, but Ryan McDonaugh and Erik Cernak are better.
Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley were solid–Daley very much so–but David Savard and Mikhail Sergachev are better.
On defense is where the Tampa Bay Lightning’s cap circumvention, er, good luck plays well. David Savard was the trade acquisition using the Nikita Kucherov money. And Steven Stamkos’ injury factored into the salary cap surplus, too.
Regardless of the circumstances, Tampa Bay has a clear and distinct advantage on the blue line and enough to swing the hypothetical series.
Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy.
With some credence, we saw the emergence of Vasilevskiy in that 2016 Eastern Conference Final. Just 10 minutes into Game 1, Ben Bishop was injured, and Vasilevskiy played the entire series.
He was stellar, and he’s only gotten better since then.
2016 and 2017 were also the height of Matt Murray’s powers. He’s never again duplicated that type of goaltending for a long stretch, but Murray was a wall in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final.
Still–Vasilevskiy. It’s not the big advantage it would appear to be today, but it’s still a Lightning advantage.
Oh boy. The series would come down to the Penguins cracking the Tampa Bay defense and goaltending. That job would fall on Sidney Crosby unless our hypothetical matchups also include a healthy Evgeni Malkin.
The Penguins won the 2016 version in seven games, but the Lightning are bigger, heavier, and just as talented as they were then.
The one immeasurable is indeed Sidney Crosby. He was a juggernaut in the Stanley Cup runs; he was physical (ask P.K. Subban), his feet didn’t stop moving, and whatever it took, Crosby did.
This would be a war, and perhaps the greatest playoff series since the Chicago Blackhawks and LA Kings scrapped in the 2015 Western Conference Final.
As a second opinion, we asked renowned hockey analyst Pierre McGuire.
“I would take Tampa because of the goalie and the depth of their defense,” he said. “Both are better than Pittsburgh’s.”
Maybe it’s recency bias or that we’ve seen Guentzel not perform as well in the last three playoff years. Perhaps the Penguins bottom-six speed could have scored a few more big goals.
But we’re also leaning towards Tampa Bay in six games because of the size, defense, and goaltending. Of course, if you’re a long-time follower of me and PHN, you may also remember our saying born from that 2017 run–“Never bet against these Penguins.”