TAMPA — Turns out, the journey from invincible to invisible isn’t that far.
The Lightning pulled it off in just a handful of minutes over the course of two games. Home-ice advantage? Gone. Confidence? Gone. Stanley Cup fantasies? Presumed missing.
With consecutive losses to open the playoffs, the 62-win Lightning has gone from a team for the ages to a team in danger of being history’s favorite punchline.
The special teams are a mess. Turnovers continue to haunt. And a galaxy of stars has seemingly disappeared into a black hole.
There is no single reason the Lightning has faltered against Columbus, including Friday night’s dispiriting 5-1 clunker. This is a total collapse, which makes it even more inexplicable.
"This is a five-alarm fire,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
It’s not as if the Lightning is getting manhandled, which was the fear coming into the postseason. And it’s not as if Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has stolen a game, although he’s played very well.
Tampa Bay lost Game 1 when players got careless with the puck, and lost Game 2 when they showed up for the first period looking as if they were afraid to make a mistake.
And so here is the reality facing Tampa Bay this morning:
Only two of the last 28 NHL teams who lost the first two games of a series came back to win. For the mathematically challenged, that’s a 7.1 percent chance. In the entire history of the NHL, the odds are a little better with 13.6 percent of the teams facing an 0-2 deficit coming back to win a series.
How did this happen?
How does Tampa Bay dominate the NHL like no other team has during the salary cap era, and then fall apart so quickly against a solid, but unspectacular, No. 8 seed?
Perhaps it’s time to wonder whether this is a team built for the regular season, and not the playoffs. This is not just a 2019 problem. The Lightning has won more games than any team in the NHL since the 2013-14 season, and has not won a Stanley Cup. Tampa Bay’s record in the playoffs over that span is 36-31.
"They obviously have a game plan for us and they’ve executed very well,'' said captain Steven Stamkos. "That’s the way it’s going to be. We tried to harp on it, that it’s not going to be easy come playoff time.
"If we thought winning that many games coming into the playoffs (meant) it was going to be a cakewalk, we were sadly mistaken.''
Of course, it doesn’t help the Lightning, a team that depends on speed and skill, that there is a higher threshold for penalties in the postseason. It’s as if obstruction is removed from the rulebook in April.
But Tampa Bay is not 0-2 because of the referees.
The Lightning is trailing because Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point have not scored a goal.
The Lightning is trailing because its top-rated power play has gone silent, and its top-rated penalty kill has been an embarrassment.
The Lightning is trailing because it has made uncharacteristically careless plays with the puck, allowing the Blue Jackets to intercept poor passes and surrendering control in the corners.
The Lightning is trailing because that’s what it deserves.
"We’ve had some stretches that were good,'' said defenseman Dan Girardi. "Just not good enough.''
As bad as the Game 1 collapse was, it did not have to be a lethal blow. In fact, a slow start in the playoffs isn’t out-of-the-ordinary for a Cooper-led team.
The Lightning is 4-8 in Game 1’s since he became coach. The difference is Tampa Bay had previously went on to win Game 2 after five of the last six Game 1 losses.
So it’s not as if this is unfamiliar territory. The Lightning has routinely trailed in recent postseasons, and has often dug out of the hole.
Last year, Tampa Bay trailed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Capitals 0-2 and won three consecutive games before falling in Games 6 and 7. It can be done. And the evidence of 62 regular season victories says the Lightning is talented enough to pull it off.
But, right now, there is little to hold onto. Not the offense. Not the defense. Not the special teams. Not even goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been unable to rescue the Lightning.
And so a team that won as much as any in NHL history is now fighting to prove it is not some regular season pretender.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow at romano_tbtimes.