BRANDON — The Blue Jackets have shocked the hockey world by going up 2-0 and putting the favored Lightning on the brink of elimination in Game 3 Sunday in Columbus.
It’s a surprising result given Tampa Bay’s NHL record-tying 62 victories, which included three regular-season wins against Columbus. How have the Blue Jackets’ flipped the script and outplayed the Lightning?
Former Lightning coach John Tortorella has devised a way to frustrate Tampa Bay’s offense, and Columbus has overcome a strife-filled season to find its identity as a legitimate postseason player.
Since trailing 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, the Jackets have outscored the Lightning 9-1. Tampa Bay’s big guns — Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos — have yet to find the net. Over the past five periods, Columbus has outplayed Tampa Bay in every facet.
“I think we’re working hard, but we’re working stupid,” Lightning forward Tyler Johnson said Saturday before the team boarded a plane to Columbus. “We’ve got to kind of relax a bit, get back to our system, get back to playing the right way and go from there.”
First, give Columbus credit. It was no secret going into this series the Jackets represented a dangerous matchup, especially since they needed to win seven of their last eight games just to qualify for the Eastern Conference’s final spot.
There were plenty of distractions from the start, mostly centered around the pending free agency of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin.
After Bobrovsky was pulled in the middle of Columbus’ 4-0 loss in Tampa on Jan. 8, he reportedly left the bench and showered, leaving the Blue Jackets without an emergency backup. That prompted the team to send him home for the next game. Later that month, the Blue Jackets dropped a season-high five straight.
But instead of dealing Bobrovsky and Panarin at the trade deadline, Columbus went all in, adding pieces, including center Matt Duchene, whose acquisition energized the Columbus offense and gave it two legitimate scoring lines. The Blue Jackets are 16-8-1 since acquiring Duchene.
But in these playoffs, the Jackets’ resilience is one built in teamwork. Nine different Columbus players have scored against Tampa Bay, and their recent success has seemed to bond the team.
“I think we’re a good team,” Tortorella said. “I think one of the greatest things that’s happened this year is that we’ve gone through a lot as a team. ... Going through some stuff, some off-ice stuff that’s well chronicled as far as our locker room and stuff that was around us from Day One. I think it’s kind of galvanized us. If we’re going to be success as a team, we have to play as a team. Even when were were down 3-0 (in Game 1), I don’t think we got away from how we have to play.”
Kucherov, suspended for Game 3 for a late hit, and Point combined for 10 of the Lightning’s 17 goals in three regular-season games with Columbus. Maybe even more telling, no other Tampa Bay player scored more than one goal in those games, so the lesson was set: Take away scoring opportunities from the Lightning’s big guns and the other guys won’t beat you.
Columbus’ greatest asset, however, involves taking away one of the Lightning’s greatest strengths: the middle of the ice. Tampa Bay utilizes its speed and skill to attack and score. The Blue Jackets have possessed the puck far better, crowded their defensive zone and denied the Lightning its ability to use the forecheck to fuel its offense. The result? A lethargic style of play along the outside.
“They’re not giving up odd-man rushes, they’re clogging up the middle of the ice,” said forward Yanni Gourde. “We’ve been playing a little on the outside lately and that’s not helping us. ... When the puck gets to the middle of the ice, I think that’s when things open up and I don’t think we’ve been able to do that lately.”
Asked what his team is doing different to stop the Lightning, Tortorella said, “We’re not doing anything special,” but added later, “Any time you play a game, the middle of the ice is very important. That’s the scoring area. That’s where teams generate speed. They’re trying to do the same thing against us.”
The Blue Jackets’ early two-goal advantage in Game 2 helped them pull back and crowd the defensive zone to prevent the Lightning from getting clear looks and second chances. Six of the Lightning’s first 10 goals against Columbus in the regular season came on second-chance opportunities.
“Every time in the playoffs, the room gets less and less out there,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “So plays happen quick. You have to be quick with your defensive reads and your offensive reads. We have to have good communication and be each others’ eyes out there, help us play a little bit faster and anticipate our next play.”
Not only have the Blue Jackets muddled the middle, but they have nearly as many blocked shots in two postseason games (32) as they did in the three previous contests (33) against Tampa Bay. The Lightning haven’t been able to swarm and attack the net as they have all regular season.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.