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