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Lightning left with only questions after devastating loss

Tampa Bay players offered a lot of words, but struggled to explain collapse -- even to themselves
Too often in its first-round series against Columbus, Lightning coach Jon Cooper and his Tampa Bay players found themselves trailing on the scoreboard and searching for answers. Really, they're still looking. The Blue Jackets swept the Lightning out of the playoffs. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 17

TAMPA — Braydon Coburn sat half undressed, staring straight ahead at nothing.

While the dressing room emptied, the Lightning ready to flee Columbus, Coburn didn’t seem in much of a hurry.

He sat shirtless, still in pants and skates, with a dead stare. Finally, he seemed to emerge from his thoughts, and he packed up his gear and walked toward the shower.

Coburn didn’t share his thoughts after the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning was swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Blue Jackets with a 7-3 loss Tuesday. His internal focus was so strong, he might not even have heard the request as he walked by.

But the anguish was clear. And shared among his teammates.

“I guess it just wasn’t our time,” Nikita Kucherov said.

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A lot of words were said after the game at Nationwide Arena, and yet none of them seemed to explain anything, even to the people saying them. Captain Steven Stamkos said that if they knew the answer to what had gone wrong, they would have fixed it.

Throughout the six-day series, coach Jon Cooper repeated that the Lightning hadn’t faced adversity all year and was thrown off its game when faced with it for the first time.

Ryan McDonagh wasn’t quite as ready to buy into that, though. He pointed to the amount of playoff experience on the team (1,301 games collectively, compared to Columbus’ 439).

This team, and this core group of players, had seen playoff adversity in previous years and overcome it. Last year in the second round, the Lightning lost Game 1 to the Bruins, then won four straight to win the series. In the Eastern Conference final, it came back from a 2-0 series deficit against the Capitals to lead 3-2. But then, of course, it coughed up two more losses — shut out in both — to end its season.

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The personnel on that team was largely the same as this season’s. They shouldn’t have needed adversity this regular season to learn how to handle it. The group that played on the 2014 team — including Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan, Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson — also knew the sting of being swept in the first round by the Canadiens.

Callahan said before Game 3 against the Blue Jackets that the Lightning could call upon its experience.

So, it wasn’t a lack of previous adversity that hurt the Lightning. Cooper also suggested that Tampa Bay was a victim of its success. It led the league for much of the regular season and clinched its playoff berth on March 8, with almost a month left in the season.

“It’s a blessing and a curse because you don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time,” Cooper said.

Players who have been on both runaway regular-season teams and Cup-winning teams have said that. Washington’s Brooks Orpik cited the Capitals’ Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, saying it was hard to get going in the playoffs after clinching their division so early; the Capitals lost in the second round both seasons to the Penguins. Danny Briere said the same about the 2006-07 Sabres, who won the Presidents’ Trophy and lost in the conference final in five games to the Senators.

The playoffs were tougher than the regular season, Briere said. Games were closer and more challenging than they should have been. The same could be said about this year for the Lightning.

Yet the Capitals and Sabres at least won a series. No Presidents’ Trophy team had been swept in the first round before this year, and only four had lost in the first round.

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The Lightning scored 319 goals in the regular season. Three players had 40 goals apiece. That talent doesn’t disappear because the playoffs started.

And yet, the goals disappeared until Game 4, by which point Columbus was too hot to slow.

Maybe it was a mental issue. Maybe that’s why shots sailed wide of open nets, like Stamkos’ typically reliable power play one-timer. Or why players put themselves in bad positions. Dan Girardi screened Andrei Vasilevskiy on the first goal of Game 3’s 3-1 loss, and Coburn ran into the goalie on the second.

Columbus deserves credit for a good game plan. Coach John Tortorella had no answer for the Lightning in the regular season as the Lightning swept all three games, but Columbus put everything together in the playoff series. But there’s more to this than just the Blue Jackets playing smart.

“We’re working hard,” Johnson said after Game 2, “but we’re kind of working stupid.”

That remained the case for the following two games.

That’s how Tampa Bay took itself out of the series.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at Follow @dianacnearhos.

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