COLUMBUS — The wheels are off.
This was supposed to be the greatest season in Lightning history, one of the greatest the NHL has ever seen.
But with a 3-1 loss to the Blue Jackets on Sunday in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, the Lightning is in an 0-3 hole, one loss from one of the most disappointing, embarrassing finishes in sports history.
Tampa Bay scored nearly at will in the regular season. It dominated special teams. It rebounded quickly, never losing more than two games in a row, and that happened only twice. On the few occasions it was necessary, goalies stole games.
None of that is happening in the playoffs so far.
The Lightning has been outscored 12-5 over three games (12-2 if you take out the first period of Game 1). None of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov has a point in the series. (Kucherov didn’t play Sunday because of a one-game suspension for boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara in Game 2.)
When it looked like Tampa Bay had righted the special-teams ship, Columbus scored on one of its two power plays in Game 3 while the Lightning didn’t have any. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been good, but nothing like the game-stealing star goalie he is.
Now the Lightning’s only hope is to do something that has been done by only four teams in NHL history: come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
The Maple Leafs did it in the 1942 Stanley Cup final. In 1975, the Islanders came back on the Penguins in the quarterfinals. The Flyers overcame that deficit against the Bruins in the 2010 second round, and the Kings did it to the Sharks in the first round in 2014.
It’s a list the Lightning didn’t expect to have a chance to join.
“We’re still playing Tuesday (in Game 4),” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re still alive.”
When did the Lightning lose its game? Tyler Johnson’s answer was short and to the point: Game 1.
Tampa Bay hasn’t been able to get back to what made it successful in the regular season since giving up a 3-0 lead in Game 1. (Not helping in Game 3 was the absence of Victor Hedman, who was scratched a day after missing practice, which Cooper had attributed to a combination of body maintenance and being banged up.)
To make matters worst, Columbus seems to have all the answers. Even when Tampa Bay came on strong in Game 3’s third period, which it entered trailing 2-0, the Blue Jackets handled it.
The Lightning poured 17 shots on net in the third, finally pressuring goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but Columbus’ two-time Vezina Trophy winner turned away 16 of them.
When Ondřej Palát scored less than five minutes into the third period, cutting the deficit to one, it felt like it could be the start of something. Maybe the Lightning would finally look like the Lightning and mount a comeback.
“We pushed hard,” Stamkos said. “If anything, maybe we found a recipe to break some of their structure there.”
But the Blue Jackets went into lockdown mode.
The Lightning couldn’t overcome Columbus’ two second-period goals. On the first, Dan Girardi helped screen Andrei Vasilevskiy and then Stamkos lost Matt Duchene, who put in a juicy rebound. On the second, Oliver Bjorkstrand got a shot from the point through traffic.
Cam Atkinson landed an empty-netter with a minute left, but that was just insurance.
The Lightning isn’t looking big picture. Ryan McDonagh said that focusing on the next game is the only way Tampa Bay can proceed.
Said Cooper: “You’re doing yourself a disservice if you look at the big picture. But I do know there was a lot of positive energy after the third period. As much down as the guys are about losing the game, and rightfully so, I think the guys liked how the second half started to go.”
The Lightning will find out if a period of Lightning-esque play is enough to spur yet another historic moment.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at [email protected]. Follow @dianacnearhos.
Blue Jackets 0-2-1--3
First Period—None. Penalties—Killorn, TB, (interference), 6:13 Callahan, TB, (roughing), 15:50, Dzingel, CBJ, (roughing), 15:50.
Second Period—1, Columbus, Duchene 2 (Werenski, Atkinson), 1:44. 2, Columbus, Bjorkstrand 1 (Texier, Jones), 8:25 (pp). Penalties—Callahan, TB, (interference), 6:50.
Third Period—3, Tampa Bay, Palat 1 (Cernak, Johnson), 4:40. 4, Columbus, Atkinson 2 (Harrington, Panarin), 19:00. Penalties—Nash, CBJ, (unsportsmanlike conduct), 19:28, Stamkos, TB, (roughing), 19:28.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 3-11-17_31. Columbus 12-10-8_30.
Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 0. Columbus 1 of 2.
Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 0-3 (30 shots-27 saves). Columbus, Bobrovsky 3-0 (31-30).
A—19,224 (18,500). T—2:28.