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Lightning-Blue Jackets: Grading Tampa Bay’s 3-1 loss to Columbus in Game 3

The Bolts have made a remarkable move from great to gross in three postseason games.
Columbus Blue Jackets' Artemi Panarin, right, of Russia, keeps the puck away from Tampa Bay Lightning's Alex Killorn during the first period of Game 3 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

My colleague Rick Stroud says the most compelling stories arise in sports when the team produces a really great season or a really bad season.

Remarkably, the Tampa Bay Lightning has managed to accomplish both in a single season. After a dazzling regular season that featured a record tying number of victories and numerous individual accomplishments, the Bolts have packed an entire year of disappointment into three post-season contests against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Few teams in any sport have managed to transition from inspiration to ineptitude in such stunning fashion. The hockey experts tell us momentum doesn’t carry from game to game in the NHL playoffs, but the Lightning hasn’t recovered from a six-minute stint in Game 1 in which the Blue Jackets stole the victory and all of Tampa Bay’s thunder from its successful regular season.

In the opener, the Lightning lost its heart. In Game 2, it lost its composure and the services of top scorer Nikita Kucherov (suspension) and top defenseman Victor Hedman (injury).

In Game 3, despite a valiant third period attempt, it lost any chance it had of reversing its fortunes.

When we grade Sunday night’s performance, we have to give low marks to every aspect of the Lightning’s game. Tampa Bay was outplayed in even strength situations, out-dueled on special teams and out-coached in terms of in-game adjustments.

Not until the third period did the Lightning unleash the compete level it needed to stay on the ice with Columbus. By then, it was too little, too late.

Top stars missing in action — again

It’s an F grade because Kucherov got suspended with an unneccessary and unsportsmanlike penalty in Game 2. You can’t fault Hedman, but three other key stars — Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy — didn’t provide the wow plays this team needed to reverse the momentum. Granted, Columbus clearly built its defensive strategy on stopping the top guys and that created opportunities for others. Still, Tampa Bay needed someone to defy the strategy, and Stamkos ended up with no shots on goal. None of the top names came up with the incredible score, none delivered an awe-inspiring play. I thought they knew big time players make big time plays in big time games. Grade: F

Lightning set the tone early

Sure, they got outshot by Columbus 12-3, but at least Lightning players didn’t come out and immediately fall behind 2-0 as it did in Game 2. It was a small victory, but playing without Kucherov and Hedman necessitated creating small positives to build momentum. Getting off to a good start should have infused calm and confidence, but it didn’t materialize in the second period. Grade: C

Maintaining the hint of momentum

After establishing it could at least hold its own without Kucherov and Hedman, the Lightning gave in to the Blue Jackets’ pressure. You could envision Tampa Bay keeping it close and pulling out a low-scoring game. That possibility faded when the Jackets’ Matt Duchene scored and all but died when Oliver Bjorkstrand added a second goal. The Lightning couldn’t afford a letdown, but suffered one anyway. Grade: F

Keeping Vasilevskiy clean proved difficult

One of the Blue Jackets’ strategies involved constantly keeping a player in front of Vasilevskiy and doing all they could to rattle his concentration. Vasilevskiy didn’t play terribly, but it would have helped if Tampa Bay could have knocked some of the players out of his view. A few post-action scrums ensued around the Lightning goal, especially when they sprayed him with ice after a stop in play. But the absence of Hedman may have been most evident with this aspect. Even in the first two games, Hedman didn’t seem to play with his normal degree of physicality. Tampa Bay needed that against Columbus. Grade: D

Are you sure that trophy isn’t cursed?

Of course, the Presidents’ Trophy, annually awarded to the NHL’s top regular-season team, is not cursed even though the Lightning are on the verge of becoming the 10th winner in 11 seasons not to win the Stanley Cup. The question, however, is not what we believe, but what does Tampa Bay believe? It played with a cloud over its head after the Game 1 collapse and didn’t show any real life until late in Game 3. The team was either too quick to allow doubt to creep in or too arrogant to realize it couldn’t rely on its regular-season accolades to thwart an upset-minded Columbus team. Grade: F


  1. Tampa Bay Lightning forward Pat Maroon (14) during drills on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp at the Ice Sports Forum on September 13, 2019 in Brandon, FL. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The veteran left winger, fresh from a championship in St. Louis, prepares to dig in with Tampa Bay
  2. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy signs the jersey of Piper Mattacchione, 7, during the Lightning Fan Fest which featured photo ops and autograph sessions on Sunday. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    The team hosted a kids press conference and fans interacted with players at the annual Fan Fest.
  3. Lightning owner Jeff Vinik briefly, on left, said he briefly feels the sting of last year's playoff disappointment. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Vinik sees growth of the team brand across the country and still wants an outdoor game in Tampa Bay.
  4. As training camp continues, the Lightning and Brayden Point still have a gap in negotiations. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The changing restricted free agent market could force the Tampa Bay to depart from its usual contract dealings.
  5. In this Jan. 31, 2018, file photo, Maple Leafs center Mitch Marner celebrates his goal against the Islanders. With training camps opening this week, Marner was among roughly a dozen prominent restricted free agents who didn't have contracts until he agreed to terms with Toronto on Friday. Still among the unsigned is the Lightning's Brayden Point. FRANK GUNN  |  AP
    The contract could impact the Lightning’s negotiations with holdout restricted free agent Brayden Point.
  6. Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper gives direction during drills on the first day on the ice at the beginning of training camp at the Ice Sports Forum on September 13, 2019 in Brandon, FL. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The coach is ready to move on from the early postseason exit with a motivated team in a new season.
  7. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) poses for the picture sand video on the first day of training camp with medical and physical testing along with media day at Amalie Arena on September 12, 2019 in Tampa, FL. The Lightning announced their 62-man roster for camp which features 33 forwards, 21 defensemen and eight goaltenders. Also in camp will be 21 players that represented the Lightning in the 2019 Prospects Showcase which took place this past weekend in Nashville. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    Largely the same group comes together for training camp, with the same goal and a larger chip.
  8. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, left, defenseman Victor Hedman and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) in the weight room during testing on the first day of training camp. Noticeably absent? That would be teammate Brayden Point. DIRK SHADD  |  Times
    The team started training camp without the restricted free agent on Thursday.
  9. In the team's newest commercial, the Lightning's Steven Stamkos, long a fan favorite, makes a plea to fans to stand by the team after its disappointing finish last season. Tampa Bay Times
    The ad subtly acknowledges the playoff collapse with a fuzzy clip of the playoff match
  10. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), center, along with defenseman Jan Rutta (44) and center Yanni Gourde (37) hope to avoid another post-season collapse, which included this 5-1 loss in April to the Blue Jackets in Game 2 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. DIRK SHADD   |  Tampa Bay Times
    Fennelly: The Bolts’ season will be one long car ride until they reach the playoffs. What, if anything, did they learn from last season’s collapse?