Steven Stamkos stared blankly toward the ground as the media circled the captain near his stall after the Lightning were eliminated by the Columbus Blue Jackets. He let out a soft sigh before answering, “It sucks.” His expression detailed everything—shock, sadness, and a loss for words that echoes throughout the Lightning organization and fandom. Tampa Bay failed to live up to their lofty expectations once again with a 7-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Now, the Lightning hit the offseason far sooner than anyone ever expected.
Tampa Bay’s talk of getting off on the right foot lasted exactly until opening puck drop. Columbus immediately forced play into the Lightning zone and just 45 seconds in, Tampa Bay was called for slashing. It’s been an interesting predicament that Tampa Bay has been so severely penalized in this series compared to Columbus. It’s true Tampa Bay did lead the league in minors taken, but they also led in minors drawn. In some manner, that should compensate for Columbus being the second least penalized team in the NHL.
Nonetheless, Columbus went to work and continued their absurd conversion rate on the power play after going 82 games being one of the worst teams with the man advantage.
No one explains how this gets through Andrei Vasilevskiy better than Mike McKenna did.
Vasy chooses to look up and over the screen. That's a matter of personal preference and situation. Bump from screener knocked his sightline from puck. Tough one, but have to wonder if lower stance would have had different result there?— Mike McKenna *LIVE* (@McKennaInGame) April 16, 2019
Vasilevskiy has struggled with long range shorts all series, and season—it’ll be interesting to see how he addresses it moving forward.
Columbus didn’t stop there though, they capitalized after a relentless forecheck to make it 2-0 just 3:48 into the period.
Again, like they have been all series, Columbus dances around Tampa Bay in the Lightning zone. Look how much space is available for Adam Clendening to find Oliver Bjorkstrand on the off side. Tampa Bay lucked out when Bjorkstrand whiffed on the one-timer, but no one pays attention to Pierre-Luc Dubois on the opposite side. The carom falls right on his stick and he manages to knock it past Vasilevskiy. Another hole for the Lightning to crawl out of in a series where they’ve failed at every other turn to do so.
It took until this hole for the Lightning to actually push back and maintain some form of offensive pressure. A small sequence of back and forth saw Tampa Bay maintain offensive zone time, but Columbus generate the more dangerous chances.
That is, until at 8:44, the Lightning registered a pulse.
This goal doesn’t happen without Anthony Cirelli winning the board battle near the top of the zone. That enables Nikita Kucherov to find Steven Stamkos entering the offensive zone. Stamkos makes a great move to give himself even more space and he snipes one past Sergei Bobrovsky to make it 2-1—something Tampa Bay can build on.
Shortly after the Stamkos goal, Tampa Bay returned to the problems that have plagued them this series. Badly timed penalties—this time on Kucherov for tripping (which was laughably bad given how he and Josh Anderson were battling along the boards). Columbus immediately went to work on the power play percentage surge with Cam Atkinson making it 3-1, but there was a scream from the Lightning bench—they were challenging it for offside.
This ended up firing up the Lightning bench, specifically Jon Cooper. From here til the end of the period, it was Tampa Bay that slowly began to wrest control from the Blue Jackets. Their inability to penetrate the slot began to reverse as more quality chances were thrown toward Bobrovsky. Unfortunately, Bobrovsky’s ghosts of playoffs past were not present as the opening 20 minutes closed with the Blue Jackets leading 2-1.
The second period opened with some back and forth action before Columbus took over. The flow of play began to open up, which is normally a positive thing for Tampa Bay, but the team getting odd man rushes was Columbus. Eventually, these rushes led to maintained pressure and another long range shot that beat Vasilevskiy at 6:28.
Scrambling defense, check. Unable to win a board battle, check. Vasilevskiy struggling on long range shots, check.
Tampa Bay continued to fight though, unlike in other games this series they actually clawed their way back into it as the period progressed. Columbus still controlled the period overall, but Tampa Bay managed to get one back six minutes later.
Sometimes you need a lucky bounce and that’s what Tampa Bay got here. Cedric Paquette manages to redirect Braydon Coburn’s point shot just enough that Bobrovsky can’t reach it—3-2. Now, down only a goal, Tampa Bay began to press a bit more. It paid off several minutes later when Zack Werenski was called for cross-checking and the Lightning went to the power play for the first time in what felt like an eternity.
It was here that the Lightning finally made it a hockey game. Their top ranked power-play managed to break through when Brayden Point made a gorgeous backhand at 17:52.
Hope, the beautiful feeling when one can sense something changing, something this Lightning team has inspired before in postseasons past when their backs were against the wall. That’s why it’s unfortunate that it only lasted 54 seconds.
A delayed penalty, a failure to track the puck correctly, and an unfortunate bounce off Erik Cernak’s foot shifted momentum once again—this time for Columbus.
If your thought is that Tampa Bay didn’t try hard enough in the final period, I don’t know what game you were watching. This was a desperate Lightning team in the third—the most desperate we’ve seen them all season and series. It shouldn’t have come down a goal in game four of the opening round, but the effort was there. Vasilevskiy made great saves in the third period to keep it close, and the Lightning offense repeatedly attacked Columbus. It was just too little too late for Tampa Bay.
Sergei Bobrovsky turned the page on his infamous postseason history and was the elite goaltender he’s always been during his career. Columbus out-battled Tampa Bay to numerous loose pucks along the boards and in the neutral zone. Through all of that, the Bolts continued to push, continued to attack, and throw pucks at Bobrovsky.
Their pressure increased as the closing minutes arrived. Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy with a bit over two minutes left in regulation and Columbus proceeded to pounce on this opportunity—three times.
Game. Set. Series.
Pittsburgh got swept. So, there’s that. Everyone hates Pittsburgh.
Too Little Too Late
As admirable as their third period push was, it was far too late to make a difference. Tampa Bay was outplayed throughout the series, most importantly on special teams. Their inability to adjust to Columbus’ pressure until their season was on the line is indicative of the coaching staff remaining stubborn in their approach. There’s are many reasons Columbus won this series, and none are the cliche nonsense other talking heads will spew. They adapted after the first period of game one and Tampa Bay didn’t. That was the biggest one.
A team that won 62 games in the regular season won none in the playoffs. Go ahead and get your negative emotions and hot takes out now. I’ll be providing a full recap of the series to dig into why Tampa Bay really lost to Columbus. Hint, it’s not the narratives you’re hearing.
Nonetheless, this is a historic collapse—that much is objectively true. A Presidents’ Trophy winner has never been swept in the first round during the expansion era of the NHL. Aside from that, this is a monumental moment for Columbus. They’ve been around for two decades and this is their first ever playoff series win. Yes, they’re an organization that has little to be proud of when it comes to playoff success, but they’ve been a good team for a while and have battled their own heartache—they deserved this series with their play.