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Lightning fail to match Blue Jackets intensity, drop game two 5-1

Talent doesn’t beat hard work when talent doesn’t work hard.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Columbus Blue Jackets at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“What’s wrong with you guys?” called out a frustrated fan during the second period where the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to inspire much confidence after a power play attempt failed to convert. A question that crossed the mind of many as the Lightning dropped game two 5-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Now, Tampa Bay faces adversity for the first time this season looking up at a 2-0 series deficit as the games shifts to Columbus. It’s well known that Tampa Bay outscored Columbus 17-3 during their regular season series, but that means little now. For the first time all season, the Lightning were booed off the ice. A performance as poor as this deserved such a response.

It’s one thing to blow a three goal lead in a game, but it’s another to be walked on in every facet against a supposed inferior opponent. The Lightning were embarrassed by the Blue Jackets 5-1 in a game they needed to win to muster some confidence going into game three. Instead, they laid an egg, and looked rattled for the first time all season.

A strong opening three minutes did not accurately foretell the game that we were about to witness. Soft goals, lost board battles, blind passes to nowhere, poor puck management, and an unwillingness to match the intensity of a wildcard team that is clearly clicking at the right time of year. The Tampa Bay Lightning looked lost this evening, which is remarkable given how dominant they looked over the regular season.

The first gut punch occurred just 5:15 into the game.

Columbus then put their foot on Tampa Bay and eventually forced a delay of game penalty on Adam Erne a little over six minutes later that led to a power play where the Blue Jackets added another tally.

After 20 minutes, the scoreboard read Columbus: 2 Tampa Bay: 0. Frustration started to bubble over as the highest scoring team in the league had now gone three periods without a goal. Scrums began to break out, and even Brayden Point threw off the gloves to fight Zach Werenski to try and spark the Lightning.

The spark ended up backfiring 30 seconds into the second period when Alex Killorn took a boneheaded interference penalty. Thus, the fourth worst power play in the league made the top penalty killing unit look silly as Matt Duchene scored his first of the playoffs.

Columbus continued to dictate the pace of the period and showed the Lightning what a team is supposed to look like with a three goal lead—composed, disciplined, and focused. The Lightning looked lost after the Duchene goal, evidenced by their inability to win puck battles in all three zones and their failure to put any kind of dangerous pressure on Sergei Bobrovsky.

For the first time all season, a chorus of boos echoed throughout Amalie Arena as the Lightning left the ice after 40 minutes of play. Frustration was clear and evident in everyone.

There was a slight glimmer of hope five minutes into the third period when Mikhail Sergachev scored the first Lightning goal since the first period of game one.

Finally, the crowd and team had some jump in them and they began to carry play, but it all went to waste 4:06 later when Riley Nash scored to make it 4-1.

This whole sequence is frustrating. From Victor Hedman’s weak slap at the puck that forced Sergachev into an awkward position, to Sergachev failing to body Boone Jenner off the puck, and ultimately to Vasilevskiy who has not looked sharp since the second period of game one. This isn’t the Lightning that won 62 games. This Lightning team is echoing the inconsistency of the 2016-2017 team.

To add even more insult to injury, Artemi Panarin made it 5-1 3:09 later.

Folks, I could’ve scored an NHL goal against defensive play like this—let that sink in. Jan Rutta completely ignores Panarin as he tries to go up the boards where there are two other Lightning defenders trying to pressure the Columbus puck carrier. How leaving an 87 point elite winger is wise is beyond me, but that’s what Tampa Bay put on display tonight.

For a cherry on top, we got this gem of a hit from Nikita Kucherov, which is likely to see him be suspended at least one game.

Kucherov deserves a suspension for this. I won’t hear any other nonsense about it. It’s needless, dangerous, and the intent is clearly there. Being frustrated is one thing, but taking it out in this manner does nothing to help the team. It just endangers the other player and puts a bad light on you. So, if Tampa Bay is lucky, they will miss their 128 point winger for only game three. We’ll see what the Department of Player Safety decides.

Now, Tampa Bay did have their chances in the third, but it felt as though the hockey gods were determined to stop them. Steven Stamkos had a one-timer that went off Brayden Point’s foot and away from the goal—and this would’ve been a sure goal had that not happened. Crossbars, posts, missed nets, failed puck recoveries, you name it and it happened to the Lightning this evening. They could at least say they blew game one, but game two was all Columbus. The Lightning were never in this game and they played like it.

The Good

It Ain’t Over

There’s a reason it’s a best of seven series. The series shifts to Columbus on Sunday. The Lightning are essentially in a do or die situation. Coming back from a 2-0 deficit is much better than a 3-0 deficit. It’s the first real adversity they’ve faced this season, they better act like it come game time. Let’s remember that Columbus had Washington down 2-0 in the first round last year and the Caps managed to come back. The Lightning are more than talented enough to do it, but talent alone isn’t going to win this series—get to work.

The Bad

Coaching Decisions

Jan Rutta hasn’t been horrible, but he hasn’t been with the team all season, he hasn’t gelled with the other defenders like the original seven have. Jon Cooper sitting Braydon Coburn continues to puzzle me in regards to the continuity of the defense. Coburn isn’t going to save the Lightning, but familiarity does go a certain distance. This is a defensive unit that had the best penalty kill in the league and has looked like one of the worst against the fourth worst power play in the league. I’d expect one of Mathieu Joseph or Adam Erne to sit for Ryan Callahan on Sunday. We’ll see if that sparks anything from Tampa Bay.

Aside from that, Cooper has not adjusted to the matchup game against John Tortorella. The Cirelli line has been the only one to generate consistent pressure with the Point and Stamkos lines disappearing. There’s been little adjustment on the power play either as Columbus has neutralized Stamkos’ one-timer by planting a body near him at almost all times. Their predictability and incessant desire for blind passes is neutralizing any kind of offensive pressure they are generating—Kucherov being among the worst offenders.

Lastly, Tampa Bay has been pushed to the perimeter too often, especially tonight. In game one, they out-chanced Columbus in the slot, but tonight they generated hardly anything. They’ve been stuck to the outside of the offensive zone where turnovers, poor puck management, and bad passes have been their motif. It’s almost like they’ve forgotten what made them successful in the first place. Whatever it is, it needs to be addressed and fast or they’re going to be sitting on Clearwater Beach wondering “what if”.

The Whatever

Many, including some at this blog, will decry the officiating as a reason why the Lightning aren’t doing better. Let me be clear, the officiating has been as bad as it’s always been. However, to focus on that is naive, misses the larger issue, and just places blame on something the team has no control of. The focus needs to be centered on the Lightning being the Lightning, not this frustrated mess of a team that has struggled to match the intensity of a Columbus team that was the very definition of inconsistent this season. They have two games to figure it out. And they better or Washington’s old label of chokers will be stuck to them until proven otherwise.