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Lightning’s Jon Cooper: ‘For six days in April, Columbus was the better team’

After an NHL record-tying 62 wins during the regular season, Tampa Bay goes winless in four playoff games.
The Blue Jackets celebrate a second-period gaol by Columbus right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand (28) during the second period. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 17

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Lightning finished its season Tuesday night with one more piece of history. It didn’t want this one, but its epic playoff collapse will define its season.

Forget the NHL record-tying 62 regular-season wins. The number that will live on is four.

The Lightning became the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept in the first round of the playoffs with a 7-3 loss to the Blue Jackets.

Remember when the Lightning seemed unbeatable? It was the nearly undisputed Stanley Cup favorite a week ago. Now its season is over.

It won’t get a trophy from the playoffs — just empty hands, disappointment and embarrassment.

All those regular-season accomplishments mean nothing.

The 128 team points, Nikita Kucherov’s 128 individual points to win the league scoring title, the 319 team goals, three 40-goal scorers, the team record 10-game winning streak — it all adds up to zero without the Stanley Cup.

“We lost,” Steven Stamkos said. “In the playoffs, if you don’t accomplish the goal of winning it all, it’s a failure. We don’t care what happened in the regular season.”

The Lightning finally regained some of its regular-season form late in the second period, when it trailed 3-1. It tied the score with a power-play goal from Brayden Point with 2:08 left.

But the Blue Jackets, feeding off the electric crowd at Nationwide Arena, went ahead less than a minute later on an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal on a delayed penalty, a trip by Mathieu Joseph.

The Lightning played a good third period but not enough to overcome the nine preceding periods of blah, sloppy hockey. It stayed within a goal until the Blue Jackets got three empty-netters with Andrei Vasilevskiy pulled in the last two minutes.

Ryan McDonagh listed the many ways the Lightning hurt itself in the series, the regular-season strengths it couldn’t execute in the playoffs. The highlight of the list was special teams after leading the league in power play and penalty kill in the regular season.

As a team, defense was missing in the playoffs. It didn’t help that Victor Hedman missed Games 3 and 4 with an injury. Vasilevskiy didn’t get much help.

“For six days in April, Columbus was the better team,” coach Jon Cooper said.

The Lightning might have suffered the biggest collapse in sports history. If nothing else, it’s in the conversation. One of the two winningest teams in NHL history couldn’t win a single game in the playoffs.

No one in Tampa Bay will ever want to hear the number 62 again.

The Presidents’ Trophy banner should be hung in silence, just appear in the rafters for next season, no ceremony needed (assuming there is a banner).

So what’s next?

The core of this team isn’t going anywhere. A few contracts expire among the defensemen, but most of the players will be back.

Stamkos still thinks this group can go all the way.

“We believe that,” he said. “It’s one thing to believe it and say it. It’s another to go out there and execute it.”

Cooper said changes to the roster were the furthest thing from his mind. All he was thinking about was that the team he loved to coach is breaking up.

The coach’s multiyear extension, signed late last month, became unpopular with a vocal group of fans as the Lightning collapsed. General manager Julien BriseBois has voiced confidence in Cooper every time he is asked, but maybe this could change that.

The two tales of the Lightning’s 2018-19 are almost Dickensian. Players refer to the playoffs as the second season, and the Lightning looked like an entirely different team than the one that played the first season.

It had a historically strong regular season and a historically poor postseason — two versions of the same Lightning team.

“If we, down the road, win a Stanley Cup, I’ll have no problem reconciling that,” Cooper said, “but right now it’s tough.”

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos

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