The Blues produced a dramatic overtime victory. The Bruins erased a two-goal deficit. The Stanley Cup final is living up to the reputation as the best championship in sports through its first two games.
But to Lightning fans, their team should be part of it. Hockey Bay should still be thriving.
As the regular season concluded — one in which the Lightning finished first in the league by 21 points with a record-tying 62 wins — a Lightning trip to the Cup final seemed a sure thing. Nearly 50 percent of those participating in the NHL’s Bracket Challenge not only had Tampa Bay making the final, but winning the Cup.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda doesn’t get you very far. And here we are, watching Boston and St. Louis, and wondering how seven days in April turned the NHL’s best team into a laughing stock.
What went wrong for the Lightning in its sweep loss to the Blue Jackets in the playoffs’ first round? We rewatched each game and came up with five reasons Tampa Bay isn’t in the Stanley Cup final.
At the time, the Lightning’s lack of panic after losing Game 1 — in which it lost a 3-0 first-period lead and fell 4-3 — seemed a good thing. Players spoke confidently about repeating what they had done after 18 of 20 losses in the regular season: bounce back and win.
But they didn’t.
The Lightning didn’t come out flat for Game 2, but it didn’t have the attitude of “we need to show the rest of the league they can’t hang with us,” as goalie Louis Domingue said after a Feb. 28 loss to Boston.
Worse, the Lightning had no response to losing Game 2 5-1. It had no urgency after losing its first two playoff games and being outscored 9-1 in the final five periods of those games at home.
Instead, Columbus set the tone with a quick start to Game 3. Oliver Bjorkstrand put the first shot on Andrei Vasilevksiy seven seconds into the game. Artemi Panarin jumped on the rebound.
It didn’t matter that neither shot was on target — Bjorstrand’s shot pulled Andrei Vasilevskiy wide of the net, and Panarin’s went high — particularly when that opening salvo is combined with the Blue Jackets breaking up Tampa Bay’s ensuing attempt to break the puck out.
In 15 seconds, the Blue Jackets made it clear the Lightning would have to work for success. By the time Tampa Bay got its game together in the third period, it was trailing 2-0, and it was too late for the game, and the series.
Missing in action
The Lightning’s stars lacked follow-through.
Defensemen Victor Hedman, who had been injured and then missed Games 3 and 4, and Ryan McDonagh made uncharacteristically bad decisions in Game 1, highlighted by giveaways that resulted directly in goals.
Neither Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos nor Brayden Point registered a point until Game 4. They had chances, but Columbus had answers.
Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones blocked two shots by Stamkos in the first period of Game 1. Defenseman David Savard got in front of a few more. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made big saves on Kucherov.
One of the things that makes Kucherov, Stamkos and Point special is they typically elevate their performances above great defensive efforts. They didn’t this time. They fell into the trap of looking for perfect shots instead of taking the ones they had.
After Columbus blocked a few shots by Stamkos from his favorite spot in the left circle, he passed up an opportunity at that spot. Instead of shooting, he passed back to Kucherov trailing the play, and Bobrovsky made the save. The Blue Jackets appeared to be skating in Stamkos’ head.
Meanwhile, Bobrovsky seemed to thrive off the matchup.
What about the coach?
The Lightning has another star — behind the bench.
Jon Cooper earned his spot as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award (coach of the year). He took largely the same group that played great in 2017-18 and elevated it.
But he went missing just as much as Stamkos and Kucherov in the playoffs.
During the Lightning’s exit interviews at Amalie Arena, a lot of talk revolved around execution, which is a player issue. General manager Julien BriseBois walked it back a little bit when asked about that, saying the coaching staff needed to put the players in positions to execute. This loss wasn’t on the just players.
Cooper is not one for a movie-worthy locker-room speech (the kind Columbus’ John Tortorella is known for). That’s fine. He needed to find something to motivate this team, though.
Last year that meant pulling Point into his office during the second-round matchup against the Bruins and challenging the center to stop Brad Marchand’s line. That worked.
Cooper calls himself a people manager. He says a coach needs to know what players need a kick in the butt and who needs an arm around his shoulder.
That deft touch never emerged in the playoffs.
More of the same
Albert Einstein said that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. He would have declared this Lightning team insane. Over and over, the Lightning threw the same strategy at the Blue Jackets.
Being a possession team, one that uses speed through the neutral zone and carries the puck into the zone, worked for Tampa Bay all season. But not in the playoffs.
Yet, when asked if the Lightning needed to try something else, Cooper said it needed to get back what worked in the regular season. Okay, but what did Tampa Bay need to do to get there?
It didn’t make adjustments to Columbus’ forecheck. The team that had done that in the regular season and come back in games so often couldn’t do that this time.
The Blue Jackets didn’t find some revolutionary method to gum up the Lightning. They played the same 1-2-2 formation but more aggressively.
Perhaps this is where the benefit of having played in playoff mode for weeks helped Columbus. But that argument doesn’t go far because the Bruins were the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a playoff spot and they’re still playing.
Nothing special here
Special teams were one of the Lightning’s regular-season hallmarks, and they contributed to Tampa Bay’s downfall in the playoffs.
Through 82 games the Lightning had at least a share of first place in the league in power play and penalty kill performance. In four playoff games, it was last in penalty kill, allowing five goals on 10 Blue Jackets chances, and 12th on the power play, going 1-of-6.
Tampa Bay’s first kill of the series was perfect. The Lightning cleared the puck four times in the first minute of the power play, and then Alex Killorn, on fresh legs, scored on a shorthanded breakaway. That kill was never seen again.
Both units got sloppy. The kill left holes for the Blue Jackets. The power play couldn’t get any thing going.
Players bobbled pucks; passes ended with the puck in skates instead of on sticks.
Another strength became a weakness.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.