COLUMBUS, Ohio — We spent the winter counting. Goals, victories, records. As quickly as we could add them up, the Lightning would provide even more on the next night. And the night after that.
Even if you weren’t a hockey fan, you came to understand this season would be about more than just a collection of numbers. This was a generational team on an implausible journey. With every victory, it seemed the Lightning was inviting more believers along for the ride.
And now that belief is shaken. Justifiably so.
The Lightning has not just lost the first two games of the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets, it has seemingly lost much of the hope that it spent months cultivating.
That’s because there was no fluke involved in either loss. The Lightning dropped Game 1 because it could not hold a lead, and it dropped Game 2 because it was outplayed most of the night.
So where is the hope today?
When you look on the ice for Game 3 in Columbus what gives you hope that the Lightning will be that roughly 1-out-of-10 team that can rebound from an 0-2 deficit and win a series?
Is it the high-paid forwards?
You might argue that it is unfair to shovel too much blame at the skates of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos and, to a lesser degree, Brayden Point.
I’d say bull.
There is a responsibility that comes with the pay ($9.5 million for Stamkos and $5.5 million for Kucherov) and the adulation of being a star. Neither Stamkos nor Kucherov has delivered in the first two games. Or, for that matter, in their last two postseasons.
Between them, Stamkos, Kucherov and Point are a minus-20 in their past 19 playoffs games. That is not how you build a legacy. And it’s not how you win a Stanley Cup. And now Kucherov is suspended for Game 3 after putting a defenseless Columbus player into the boards on Friday night.
The way Columbus has slowed the Lightning offense down, it’s hard to envision a dramatic turnaround from the forwards on Sunday night.
Should your hope lie there? Don’t bet on it.
Is it Andrei Vasilevskiy?
The Tampa Bay goaltender is not to blame for the first two losses, but he also has not distinguished himself. Vasilevskiy is an elite goalie and has the ability to carry the Lightning on his shoulders.
He has provided a few highlights but he has not yet risen to the occasion. And maybe the task is too large considering Victor Hedman does not seem to be fully recovered from his late-season injury and no one else is stepping up on defense.
But if there is one player who can turn this series around for Tampa Bay, it is Vasilevskiy.
Should your hope lie there? That’s a possibility.
Is it the special teams?
You can accept that players get hurt or go into slumps. But an entire group of players? On both the power play and the penalty kill?
Tampa Bay came into the postseason with both the No. 1 power play and penalty kill in the NHL, just the second team in more than 40 years to pull that off. And yet the Lightning is 0-for-5 on the power play, and the Blue Jackets are 3-for-6.
Clearly, Columbus has seen something in Tampa Bay’s special teams that can be exploited. If the Lightning did not adjust after Game 1, it doesn’t leave you with a lot of faith for Game 3.
Should your hope lie there? I wouldn’t count on it.
Is it the steady hand of coach Jon Cooper?
They are the Yin and Yang of coaches. Or maybe Fire and Ice is the better comparison. Cooper is cool and calculating. Columbus coach John Tortorella is passion and bluster.
So was it Tortorella’s storm-the-hill style that was responsible for Columbus players charging back after falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1? Possibly.
And has Cooper’s steady-as-she-goes demeanor not gotten across the urgency of the situation in the Lightning locker room? That’s possible too.
Cooper’s low-key intensity served Tampa Bay well through a record-setting regular season that was remarkable for its consistency. But it’s worth asking whether that approach works as well in the playoffs.
Should your hope lie there? It hasn’t worked so far.
So about that 0-2 hole …
The Blue Jackets taking the first two games from the Lightning makes them the fourth team to grab a 2-0 series lead in the first round of the playoffs against the Presidents’ Trophy winner since the award was instituted in 1985-86. Lightning fans maybe can take some comfort in this is the second straight year the Blue Jackets have opened the playoffs with consecutive road wins; they won the first two at Washington last year. Then they lost four in a row. And the Capitals went on to win the Stanley Cup:
|2002||Vancouver||Detroit||4-2 Detroit Wins|
|2009||Anaheim||San Jose||4-2 Anaheim Wins|
|2012||L.A. Kings||Vancouver||4-1 L.A. Wins|
*The 2002 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup
Is it the vagaries of playoff hockey?
Few sports have as many wild momentum swings as hockey. All it takes is a turnover, a fight, a random deflection to change the course of a game and maybe a series in the NHL.
We may have already seen the turning point in Game 1 when a Ryan McDonagh pass was intercepted by Nick Foligno and turned into a breakaway goal that began the Columbus comeback.
But knowing the Blue Jackets blew a 2-0 series lead in the first round against Washington last year, and knowing they have lost eight of their 10 playoff games at home in franchise history, it’s not hard to imagine a bad break causing some doubts to creep in their heads in Game 3.
So should your hope lie there?
Oddly enough, with a lineup as skilled as any other in the NHL, Tampa Bay’s best hope may come down to a random moment that changes the direction of the series.
Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at romano_tbtimes.