COLUMBUS, Ohio – Hard to say which is worse:
Being outsmarted or being outplayed.
Neither would have seemed plausible a week ago, and yet both ideas merit consideration as the Lightning gets 60 minutes to save a season Tuesday night in Game 4 against the Blue Jackets.
And before going any further, I’ll acknowledge Columbus deserves a Zamboni-load of credit for winning the first three games of the series. The Blue Jackets remade themselves in February, and are a darn sight more dangerous than your typical No. 8 seed.
But are they better than the Lightning?
Because that’s what the evidence suggests right now. This series hasn’t been dictated by a hot goaltender or a fluke call. Columbus has simply been the better team about 75 percent of the time.
So what’s the answer?
Outsmarted or outplayed?
If you talk to enough people, if you read between the lines, if you dive into the numbers, you find there’s enough blame to suggest it’s a little bit of both.
Tampa Bay has lost three games because, in roughly chronological order, the Lightning:
* Got giddy with a 3-0 lead in Game 1, and failed to recognize the Blue Jackets were not going to go down quietly like they did in the regular season.
* Came out flat in Game 2, and allowed Columbus to dictate the action.
* Took too long to either identify, or solve, the way the Blue Jackets were clogging the neutral zone and slowing down the pace of games once they got a lead.
* Relied too much on regular season strengths — such as the power play — that have less impact in the playoffs when referees are more prone to overlook penalties.
Put it all together, and you have a team that’s been outscored 12-2 in the last eight periods. And not a lot of players or coaches are raising their hands to accept responsibility.
The Lightning has gone from outscoring the rest of the NHL by nearly 100 goals in the regular season, to having the worst goal differential in the postseason.
“The other team is good and has a game plan to stop (us),’’ said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. “So it’s not always what you’re doing as a team, sometimes the other team can have a say in the structure they have and their game plan. You have to give them some credit. They had a game plan and put it in place and we have to make adjustments now.’’
That kind of sounds like the Lightning has been slow to react strategically.
“It’s one of those situations where we have to trust our skill a little bit more,’’ coach Jon Cooper said. “There are plays to be made out there that we’ve left on the table. We just have to execute better.’’
And that kind of sounds like Lightning players are under-performing.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Tampa Bay players were not prepared for the increased intensity in the playoffs, and the coaching staff was not prepared for an opponent with a game plan that neutralized the Lightning’s speed.
In retrospect, the wildly successful regular season may have given everyone in Tampa Bay a warped sense of confidence. And how could it not?
The Lightning was not just the best team in the NHL, it was the best team anyone had seen in the salary cap era. So who could blame Lightning coaches for thinking their players would bounce back from a Game 1 meltdown? And who could blame Lightning players for believing the strategies that had dominated all season long would eventually prevail?
And here’s the kicker: The Lightning faces elimination Tuesday night, and yet is still the more talented team. Think about that.
It means a comeback is still within reach.
It also means it never should have come to this.
Contact John Romano at [email protected]. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.