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Lightning in the postseason: No grit, no glory

Commentary: The NHL’s best team in the regular season edges closer to being on the wrong side of history.
Tampa Bay Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy, left, of Russia, gives up a goal as Columbus Blue Jackets' Pierre-Luc Dubois, center, and Josh Anderson watch the play during the second 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

COLUMBUS, Ohio — They will wear this forever. A team too pretty to win.

That’s your 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning in all its lovely disappointment. Glamour boys in the regular season, and pretenders when it came time to do the dirty work of the NHL postseason.

I don’t mean Lightning players are soft. They have hit, they have fought, they have bled. There were moments in Game 3 on Sunday night when it looked like they had rediscovered their passion.

But the core players have long carried a reputation for being dazzling with their skills, but less than intimidating when it came to confrontation and grit.

And these playoffs have told the entire story in three regrettable games.

The last, best chance of resurrecting a historic regular season may have ended Sunday night when the Blue Jackets beat the Lightning 3-1 with the possibility of a sweep looming on Tuesday night. And the Stanley Cup that seemed so tantalizingly close, has been pushed beyond Tampa Bay’s fingertips by Columbus coach John Tortorella.

The Lightning is not dead yet, but the coroner’s van is idling.

RELATED: Grading Tampa Bay’s 3-1 loss to Columbus in Game 3

“If you look at the big picture, I don’t think that helps us," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Our focus has to be on coming out with the same pace, the same execution, the same desperation."

The good news? There have been four times as many comebacks from down 3-0 in the NHL than in the NBA and Major League Baseball combined.

The bad news? History says that still works out to about a 50-to-1 longshot in hockey.

And barring a miracle comeback, this will go down as one of the great collapses in modern sports.

This is worse than the 2001 Seattle Mariners who won 116 games and failed to win the American League pennant. At least the Mariners won their first-round series and lost to a great Yankees team.

And this is worse than the 1996 Detroit Red Wings who won 62 games and failed to reach the Stanley Cup final. At least the Red Wings reached the conference final and lost to No. 2 seed Colorado.

And this is much worse than the 2007 New England Patriots who went 16-0 and failed to win the Super Bowl. At least the Pats were within a minute of beating the Giants and finishing undefeated.

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It’s a special kind of misery to be so dominant in the regular season, then look so helpless when the important games begin.

To paraphrase Victor Hedman:

So how did that 62-win season work out for you?

There is a theory that Tampa Bay’s entire postseason was corrupted by jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1 on Wednesday night. That it simply fed into the dangerous perception that this team was a cut above everyone else, and that Lightning players could do whatever they pleased.

When Columbus refused to lie down, Tampa Bay was caught unprepared. And for a team that thought it had weathered storms in the regular season, it discovered in Game 2 that there is a whole other level of intensity that it knew nothing about.

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“You’re feeling pretty good about yourself when you’re up 3-0 and then you kind of giftwrap that one for them," coach Jon Cooper said. "It was a tough last 14 minutes of the third period (in Game 1) and the problem is it carried into Game 2 and that was a little bit of a surprise for us.

“Adversity hits in different ways and we haven’t had a lot of it in the regular season and we have it now."

This was supposed to be the season that would never end. People were going to talk forever about the greatest regular season in Tampa Bay history.

And I guess they will.

But for all the wrong reasons.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.

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