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Lightning return to Columbus for what cannot be just another game

Tampa Bay makes its first trip back since its record-breaking season ended with a first-round playoff sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets.
The Lightning's season ended in Columbus last year. Now, they make their return looking for a better result. [SHADD, DIRK  |  Tampa Bay Times]
The Lightning's season ended in Columbus last year. Now, they make their return looking for a better result. [SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 9
Updated Feb. 10

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the Lightning take the ice here Monday night, it will have been 300 days since their 2018-19 season ended at Nationwide Arena. That’s long enough to learn their lessons, long enough to move on.

But no one has forgotten that loss in a first-round playoff sweep that followed Tampa Bay’s historic regular season. Not the Lightning, not their fans and not the hockey world.

On Reddit, the massive collection of online forums that bills itself as the “front page of the Internet,” someone makes mention of Tampa Bay’s collapse in just about every game thread on the hockey subreddit. During the Feb. 1 game at San Jose, user leroooyjeeeeenkins shared this taunt: “Intermission time already? Guess I can use this opportunity to sweep my floors and wash my jackets.”

Related: Anthony Cirelli makes the play of the game to beat the Islanders

For the first time since that loss, the Lightning are facing the Blue Jackets. Defenseman Braydon Coburn said before the season that the Lightning needed to “bury our dead.” Now they have a chance to exorcise some demons.

Neither the Lightning nor the Blue Jackets are the team they were in April.

Columbus lost most of its biggest names to free agency in the offseason — Artemi Panarin to the Rangers, Matt Duchene to the Predators, Sergei Bobrovsky to the Panthers — but plays largely the same game.

The Lightning have most of the same faces but have tried to tweak their game to play more responsibly. Their common refrain of taking care of leads and being comfortable winning 3-1 instead of 6-1 are a direct references to what went wrong in Game 1 of last season’s playoff series.

Beyond that, they are also addressing that they got comfortable during a 2018-19 regular season that offered few challenges. The Lightning got to the point where they expected to keep winning without putting a lot of work behind that expectation.

As Brayden Point reflected on the Lightning’s current roll — 18-2-1, six wins in a row and an eight-game point streak — he referenced lessons learned last season.

“We can’t get too high,” he said. “That’s kind of what happened last year. We can get too high and take a foot off the gas a little bit. These are still important games. We’re playing for points still. So we have to keep an even keel going into this (two-game) road trip.”

Even within this hot stretch, Alex Killorn pointed to Tuesday’s win over the Golden Knights as an instance when the Lightning had to catch themselves.

Related: Sign up for our Lightning Strikes newsletter to get updates to your inbox weekly

They won the game, but they didn’t play the way they wanted. The Lightning took an early lead, then went into cruising mode. The Golden Knights tied the score early in the third period, and the Lightning had to fight back.

“We were a little comfortable against Vegas, and we addressed that Wednesday morning,” Killorn said. “Maybe last year that would have dragged on while we kept winning games.”

Tonight, the Lightning take those lessons to a place where it all went wrong, where their dream season ended with the Blue Jackets’ cannon blasting over the handshake line.

Following Tampa Bay’s 3-1 win over the Islanders on Saturday, Victor Hedman and Anthony Cirelli called the first meeting this season with Columbus “another game.” Point offered a slightly different perspective.

“These guys kicked us out of the playoffs, so there’s a little bit of extra motivation there,” Point said, “but for the most part, we have to focus on our game (not the opponent).”

Even with some new players, the Blue Jackets play the same style: a simple game that involves tight defense and clogging the neutral zone. And rookie goalie Elvis Merzlikins is the hottest netminder — perhaps hottest player — in the league right now.

When starter Joonas Korpisalo was hurt during a Dec. 29 shootout, it looked like trouble for the Blue Jackets. At that point, Merzlikins was winless in 10 appearances. Since then, Merzlikins is 12-2-0 and has five shutouts in his past nine starts. He’s among the NHL leaders in shutouts, save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (2.19).

Related: Five reasons the Lightning missed the Stanley Cup Final

Hedman remembers being impressed playing against Merzlikins in the 2017 World Championship.

“Now he’s getting a chance in the NHL, and he’s taking it,” Hedman said. “He’s been playing really well. Five shutouts in (nine) games is unheard of.”

The Lightning faced a hot Blue Jackets goalie in the playoffs (remember, Bobrovsky had his way with them). But they believe they are a different team in search of a better outcome — one with fewer cannon blasts.

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

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