Photo: Karl B. DeBlaker/AP
In many ways, the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs has provided similarities and evoked memories of past playoffs. The teams and the players may be different but in many ways the stories are like the past, especially in the Eastern Conference.
FIRST ROUND SIMILARITIES
2023 – Boston Bruins vs Florida Panthers
In the Atlantic Division, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins played the eighth seeded Florida Panthers, who were also the second wild card. The series brought back memories of the following first round playoff series from the past: Pittsburgh Penguins vs Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011, Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens in 2010, and Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019.
2011 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs Tampa Bay Lightning
The series was a matchup between the fourth seeded Pittsburgh Penguins against the fifth seeded Tampa Bay Lightning. While the Penguins, with a regular season record of 49-25-8 and 106 points, had earned just three standings points more than the Lightning, who had a record of 46-25-11 for 103 standings points, the Penguins were heavily favored to win the series.
The Penguins were a consistent contender and had won the Stanley Cup just two seasons prior. The Lightning made a dramatic improvement from the previous season (34-36-12) which followed two seasons in the Southeast Division cellar. In the series, the Penguins got off to a three games to one series lead. But the Lightning came back to win Game 5, Game 6, and Game 7, very similar to what the Panthers did to Boston in 2023.
Another similarity was the fact that the Lightning used a relatively old goaltender in Dwayne Roloson, who was 41-years-old at the time of that series, even older than Sergei Bobrovsky, who is currently 34.
2019 – Tampa Bay Lightning vs Columbus Blue Jackets
In 2019, the Tampa Bay Lightning breezed their way to the Presidents’ Trophy. They played faced the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were the second wild card team. However, the Lightning blew a 3-0 lead in the first game and went on to get swept by the Blue Jackets.
This was the first time that the Columbus Blue Jackets had ever advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The goaltender for Columbus was none other than Sergei Bobrovsky. While that series ended in a sweep as opposed to going seven games, it was a first-round upset of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team.
2010 – Washington Capitals vs Montreal Canadiens
In 2010, the Washington Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy while the Montreal Canadiens were an eighth seed and barely qualified for the playoffs. In this series, the Capitals got off to a three games to one series lead, only to lose the series.
2023 – Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning
In many ways, the current edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs is built built very similar to the Washington Capitals of just over a decade ago, but with an even more frustrating playoff history. Leafs forwards Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander could collectively be compared to the Capitals’ top three forwards of that era: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin. In addition, the Capitals had an offensive defenseman, Mike Green, who could be compared to the Leafs’ Morgan Rielly. While the Leafs have had trouble advancing past the first round, the Capitals of that era could often advance past the first round but could never advance past Round 2.
2011 Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers
During that series, the Capitals had a 2-1 series lead when they played Game 4, they fell behind 3-0 but clawed back to tie the game and eventually won it in double overtime. They ultimately took the series in five games. Many thought that winning in five games boded well for the Capitals who nearly always got involved in seven game series for the first round. After coming back from a 4-1 deficit against the Leafs to win in Overtime, the Leafs ultimately won their series against Tampa Bay in six games, but it was a milestone getting past the first round. In both cases, the hope was to go deeper in the playoffs.
SECOND ROUND SIMILARITIES
2023 Toronto Maple Leafs vs Florida Panthers
This was the series where the Maple Leafs lost in humiliating fashion to the eighth seeded Panthers, by losing the first three games, staving off elimination by winning the fourth game, but falling in five games. The loss was humiliating enough to Toronto that despite advancing to the second round, there was an overload of consternation in the press, and their General Manager, Kyle Dubas, was fired. After that, Jason Spezza, who worked as an assistant to Dubas, also departed from the organization. There is now talk that one of the core players could be traded.
This brings back memories about two series that occurred during the 2011 postseason, the Washington Capitals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers against the Boston Bruins. In a closely competitive conference during the regular season, the Capitals had the best record in the Eastern Conference with 107 points, as they won the Southeast Division. The Flyers tied in points with the Penguins with 106 points but won the Atlantic Division, due to tiebreakers. The Capitals won their division by four points over Tampa Bay. The Boston Bruins won the Northeast Division with 103 points.
2011 Washington Capitals vs Tampa Bay Lightning
The Capitals, who had beaten the Rangers in five games, were expected to beat Tampa Bay, as they were more rested while the Lightning were expected to be emotionally spent after coming back from a three games to one series deficit to win their series against Pittsburgh. However, they lost both Games 1 and Game 2 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. When the series moved to Tampa Bay, the Lightning won Games 3 and Game 4 to complete the sweep.
After that series loss, the Capitals felt humiliated. In conjunction with their playoff losses of the prior seasons and the fact that they could never advance past the second round, the team felt compelled to change the culture by having a tougher training camp the next season and more severe punishment to players for infractions.
2011 Philadelphia Flyers vs Boston Bruins
The Flyers had beaten the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of the playoffs to face the Boston Bruins, who had beaten the Buffalo Sabres. The Flyers had the home ice advantage in the series.
However, Boston swept that series, getting revenge for the results from the previous year when Boston won the first three games of that series but then the Flyers won the next four. So now Boston advanced to the third round (Eastern Conference Finals) where they beat the Lightning and ultimately beat the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup.
Throughout their playoff run, the Flyers had a goaltender carousel. Sergei Bobrovsky, then a rookie, had won the starting goaltending job for Philadelphia for most of the season. In their series against Buffalo, he had a very short leash. After a poor start to his second playoff game, he was pulled and replaced with their backup. For the third game in that series, he was demoted to third on the depth chart. Overall, the Flyers didn’t give either Boucher or Leighton a long leash either.
The Flyers’ reaction to that sweep involved signing Ilya Bryzgalov to a long-term contract. They also traded Captain Mike Richards and their other star, Jeff Carter, during the off season. It was a consequential off-season that did not change their team for the better.
Playoff Run Similarity
The Panthers are currently waiting for the series between the Las Vegas Knights and Dallas Stars to determine their opponent in the Stanley Cup Finals. They could possibly be following a similar script to the Los Angeles Kings of 2012.
The Kings had beaten the Presidents Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in the first round. After that, they swept the St. Louis Blues who had the second-best record in the conference. They advanced to the Western Conference Finals where they beat the third seeded team, the Arizona Coyotes. After that, they beat the New Jersey Devils to win their first-ever Stanley Cup, with two of the important players being Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, whom the Flyers had purged from their team during their humiliating playoff loss of 2011.
By Diane Doyle
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