The Tampa Bay Lightning trail the Columbus Blue Jackets 3-0 in the opening round playoff series. You’ve certainly heard that by now. You’ve also heard lots of other things about why that is happening from lots of different places. The Lightning are getting run out of the building. They’re getting their asses kicked. They’re getting curb stomped. They’re gutless. They’re chokers. Etc. Etc. Etc.
All of it is nonsense. Yes, the Lightning have not looked the same dominant team that we saw all season. But they also haven’t been terrible. As always in the NHL playoffs, people see the results, overreact to the small sample anomaly, and start retrofitting the same tired explanations. The popular narrative is the easy one. Neat and clean with little need for further thought. The team can’t get it down when it counts.
Fire the coach. Trade the players. Blah blah blah blah.
On the ice, this has been a close series
Remarkably so. It could just as easily be 2-1 in favor of either team. And in fact, it probably should be. I can understand if you’re skeptical to this point, so to get on the same page, let’s check in on the numbers.
Stats certainly aren’t everything and what we observe during the game is important too. But numbers have a helpful way of contextualizing the outcomes we see and allowing us take a bigger picture look. This is especially beneficial when stakes are high and being absorbed in the moment to moment results can skew perceptions even more than normal.
The following chart shows the series totals via Natural Stat Trick.
At 5v5, the Lightning have a lead in both shots and expected goals (xG). That’s also true in all situations but the margin is more slim. Looking at these numbers, I can’t see a justifiable argument that the Lightning are deserving of their 3-0 deficit. No, they haven’t been great. But break even hockey is typically worth more than three consecutive losses.
If we go game-by-game, the picture is the same. The Bolts controlled game one. They generated 63% of the xG. Even with the weaker play over the final two periods, they still played well enough to win. And most nights, they would have. Game two was the opposite. The numbers were close at 5v5 but Columbus’ power play was the difference and they deserved the win. Game three was the closest of the series with the teams having nearly identical expected goals in all situations.
No matter how you slice it, if hockey was a fair game, the Lightning would be in no worse shape than down 2-1 and could easily be up 2-1. But hockey is not a fair game and so instead, they are down 3-0.
What is to blame?
If we’re looking for a culprit for the Lightning being in this position, none of the convenient options from the opening paragraphs will suffice. Instead, we have to look in multiple places to see how something this unlikely could happen.
First of all and most importantly, the Lightning haven’t played the way they’re capable of playing. Pointing out that they’ve been unfortunate doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. This is a team that was dominant all season. Playing break even hockey against the second wild card team isn’t good enough.
Poor breakouts, poor play
The persistent problem of poor breakouts that has existed throughout Jon Cooper’s tenure has returned. During the season, it looked like an improved blue line and an exceptionally deep forward group had finally overcome this issue. But John Tortorella has found a way to exploit it. A team that was so dynamic through the neutral zone all season suddenly can’t complete a pass that would allow them to gain the offensive zone with speed.
If the Lightning had dominated all three games and were just losing to a hot goalie, that would be one thing. But this isn’t that. The Lightning have real problems and bear some responsibility for the results they’ve gotten. Columbus deserved game two and had as much a claim to game three as Tampa.
Not playing to their potential creates other problems for the Lightning. It reduces the margin for error and makes them more susceptible to smaller swings in the things they can’t control, like the other team’s goalie. Instead of playing to their peak and forcing Bobrovsky to be great to win game three, they played just ok meaning he needed to be merely good. And he’s more than capable of that as he showed.
Struggling in goal
Their mediocre play has also amplified Andrei Vasilevskiy’s struggles. During the season, he had down games but the skaters were able to compensate. That hasn’t happened this series. During the regular season, a poor performance like the one in the first game of the series wouldn’t be a huge issue. Either the skaters would have bailed him out to salvage it or if not, the team would have responded strongly the following few games to get back to winning. That hasn’t happened here. Instead, that loss looms large as the only game the Lightning have truly deserved to win.
Losing important players
Game three, the one where either team could’ve reasonably won, featured a new wrinkle. The Lightning were without arguably their two best players in Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. Considering how close the game was without them, suggesting they might have won with them isn’t a stretch.
So what are we talking about here? Some mediocre play, a decent chunk of bad luck, a bad injury to Hedman, and a terrible self-inflicted suspension by Kucherov. All that adds up to a 3-0 deficit and a season on the brink.
Do we have a chance?
In a weird way, being able to say the team was just choking would be comforting. We could write them off, call for change, and move on. But the reality is more disquieting. The mishmash of controllables and uncontrollables that led to these results is harder to classify and leaves an uncomfortable amount of uncertainty about what to make of this situation.
Most of all, it makes it impossible for me to give up on this series. Micah Blake McCurdy has the Lightning’s chances of advancing at 8%. Dom Luszczyszyn has them at 10%. Those aren’t good odds but they also aren’t nothing. Coming into this series, the chances of the Jackets winning the first three games were even lower than that. So a Lightning comeback would only be the second most unlikely thing to happen in this series.
If I squint hard enough I can almost see it. Kucherov returns to the lineup and they play like a better version of the team from game three to win game four and extend the series. They go home and play the way they did in game one to close the gap to 3-2. Now they’re just one win away from forcing a game seven and maybe Hedman is ready to return.
All of that happening is unlikely of course. And even if they play well for however much longer this series lasts, they’ll probably lose at least one more game and go home for the summer. That’s the trouble with the NHL postseason. The margin for error is slim. And the margin for a combination of error and bad luck is nonexistent.
Taking a step back to the bigger picture, the Lightning probably don’t deserve to be in this position. They played well enough to win at least one of the first three games. But climbing back into the small picture, none of that matters. Their chances of achieving their goals for this season have almost disappeared. They’ll need another bizarre turn of luck to even get to the second round. But considering this is hockey, a bizarre turn of luck is never completely out of the question.