The Tampa Bay Lightning said hello to their first three-game losing streak of the season with this evening’s 3-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Lightning was the better team this evening, but they were unable to get past Elvis Merzilkins. Oliver Bjorkstrand, David Savard, and Cam Atkinson scored for Columbus. Mathieu Joseph had the lone goal for Tampa Bay. Curtis McElhinney stopped 18 of 20 shots and played exceptionally well this evening. Merzlikins stopped 37 of 38 to give Columbus some life in their hunt for a playoff spot.
All statistics and graphs come from Natural Stat Trick
For the majority of the opening period, the Lightning dictated everything. Their forechecking, decision making, and structure pinned the Blue Jackets repeatedly. Early chances by Hedman, Point, and Stamkos highlighted Tampa Bay’s early pressure. Columbus appeared lost for the first half of the period, slow to react and unable to cleanly exit their zone.
Merzlikins play kept the Blue Jackets alive before they managed to generate their first controlled surge of the period. Strangely enough, the Blue Jackets' first real push came from a shot from their own goal line that saw McElhinney give up a dangerous rebound in front that saw Foligno get a good look on net as well. From this point onward, Columbus dictated the pace.
Tampa Bay’s crisp attack quickly deteriorated into sloppy passes and decision-making as Columbus clamped down in the neutral zone. There were glimpses of pressure for Tampa Bay, a late two-on-one with Palat and Johnson took a bad bounce, and the Point line pushing back late in the period.
Columbus’ late push ended up tilting the shot attempt battle in their favor 12-11, but outside of volume, the Blue Jackets didn’t generate many dangerous chances. The Lightning still held an edge in expected goals at 69%, as well as scoring chances 8-5.
What ended up failing for the Lightning was their inability to clear the defensive reliably once Columbus found their footing. They appeared to rush their decision making and the Blue Jackets feasted on their mistakes.
The second period saw a lot of back and forth with neither team controlling play for long stretches of time. However, the Lightning would get a big scare near the midway point of the period.
The situation was a complete fluke and the reaction by Lehtonen confirms how unintentional the collision was. Regardless, all of the Lightning fandom held their breath for any news after Hedman went down the tunnel. For a span of roughly four and a half minutes of game time, the Lightning only had one of their top four defensemen on the bench—Mikhail Sergachev.
Luckily, Hedman returned.
VIDEO: Victor Hedman testing things out during the timeout, now back in the ice pic.twitter.com/aH9ITs2hWC— Lightning Insider (@Erik_Erlendsson) March 31, 2021
Unluckily, Columbus took the lead.
It’s a tired trope to jump on Luke Schenn for how ineffective he is on the ice, but he just picks the wrong player here. Bjorkstrand easily pushes him away and Schenn completely ignores him afterward. With no one applying any pressure on Bjorkstrand, he proceeds to make a fantastic deflection to give the Blue Jackets the 1-0 lead. Nothing McElhinney could do on this one.
The Lightning surged dramatically after falling behind by a goal and dominated every metric possible.
Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s pressure meant little as Merzlikins thwarted every wave thrown at him.
Columbus followed up getting caved by scoring on their only good chance after going up by one goal.
Andreas Borgman, up until this point was having a strong game. He made good decisions with the puck, kept an aggressive mindset in the offensive zone, and kept his defensive game simple. Unfortunately, his inability to fully separate Texier from the puck here doomed the Lightning on this goal.
A perfect example on how hockey can be an immensely dumb sport.
5v5 - 2nd Period
Shot Attempts: 29-8 Tampa Bay
Scoring Chances: 12-5
High Danger Chances: 4-2
xGF%: 74% - 26% Tampa Bay
Yet, the Lightning trails by two.
Another hit Tampa Bay had to absorb was Jan Rutta only playing two shifts this period and being ruled out during the second intermission.
Tampa Bay’s aggression didn’t relent in the final frame. Their pressure generated a few good looks early on, but it was the fourth line (which has been exceptionally good the past few weeks) that managed to cut Columbus’s lead in half.
After cutting the lead down, Tampa Bay continued to put pressure on Columbus. The Blue Jackets struggled to exit their own zone and when they did, they had a Lightning player harassing them through the neutral zone nearly every time. The one thing Tampa Bay failed to do was generate traffic in front of Merzlikins. The young netminder had little trouble stopping any shot thrown at him when he had a clear sightline.
This is due to two contributing factors; Tampa Bay was doing too much from the perimeter of the offensive zone, and Columbus did an exceptional job boxing the Lightning out from in front of the net.
Desperation did little to help Tampa Bay as regulation wound down.
That’s Tampa Bay’s first three-game losing streak all season.
As much as a three-game losing streak stings, Tampa Bay was the better team throughout the game. Columbus got a fortunate deflection and a poorly timed defensive gaffe. Every other good chance they generated, which wasn’t many, was stopped by McElhinney. The Lightning dictated this game for large swaths of time and was stonewalled by Merzlikins this evening. Their offensive approach didn’t do enough to take away his eyes and it burned them tonight.
They lucked out with Hedman’s injury not being as serious as initially thought, but losing Rutta hurts with the lack of depth behind him. The returns of Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh can’t come soon enough, because sooner or later playing Schenn and Borgman extended minutes is going to bite them in the rear.
On to Thursday.