The Tampa Bay Lightning lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2 on Thursday night in a game that ultimately meant little aside from seeding in the playoffs (no matter who the Lightning play, it will be a tough challenge). Nikita Kucherov and Corey Perry scored for the Lightning. Jakub Voracek, Cole Sillinger, Jack Roslovic, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Andrew Peeke scored for the Blue Jackets. Brian Elliott stopped 30 of 34 shots while Elvis Merzlikins stopped 25 of 27.
Given how meager this performance was for Tampa Bay, I feel it’s only fitting to mirror that in the recap. Throughout the game, the Lightning didn’t seem overly interested. There were spurts where they looked like the team that romped over Toronto, Nashville, and Florida, but it felt like they were going through the motions for most of the game. Columbus, on the other hand, looked hungry all evening. Dominating play for long periods that saw the Lightning struggle to respond adequately.
Tampa Bay thought they scored first when Pat Maroon put one past Merzlikins, but Columbus challenged the goal for goaltender interference and won. Corey Perry was the culprit who ended up negating the goal, and as always it’s near impossible to predict how a goaltender interference will be called.
The Blue Jackets' relentless forechecking style skated circles around Lightning defenders and created a bevy of chances that saw Brian Elliott thwart repeatedly, unfortunately, the Moose can only do so much when his defense isn’t playing up to their standard.
The second period saw a little more from Tampa Bay, but little mistakes kept piling up. The Lightning were gifted three power-plays during the middle frame (largely from boneheaded penalties from Columbus) and they failed to properly capitalize on them. Their first two power-plays chances of the period mirrored their lone power-play in the opening period—dreadfully ineffective. Puck management was woefully below what the team was capable of and they struggled to effectively enter the offensive zone.
Kucherov’s goal didn’t even come off an impressive sequence, it came off a face-off win where he wired one past Merzlikins before he could fully read the situation (that’s what elite talent can do for you).
Obviously, this is when Tampa Bay steps up and begins controlling play like they’re supposed to, right? It’s what we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. They wouldn’t cave immediately and allow a woefully undertalented team outwork them just seconds after tying the game, would they?
Not even 30-seconds later.
Tampa Bay’s best chance following Sillinger’s goal came on a 2-on-1 with Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli where Point made a nifty move to get around a defender but ended up pulling his shot high over Merzlikins.
Tampa Bay’s chippiness started becoming a factor as the period closed. Merzlikins, for some reason, took a whack at Pat Maroon’s stick as time expired. Maroon was standing next to Merzlikins and had a defender covering him. It’s unclear if Maroon did something before the camera was on them, but that triggered Corey Perry going into “Corey Perry mode” and leaping toward Merzlikins which drew the entire of all five Blue Jackets players to him in a scrum that saw him lose his helmet in the process.
Columbus ended up with a power-play as a result to start the third and the predictable thing happened given Tampa Bay’s play this evening.
The Lightning managed to push back immediately and draw another penalty to give them their fifth man advantage of the game. Unfortunately, they didn’t cash in on it. Their best chance saw Merzlikins make a marvelous save to keep the Blue Jackets' advantage at two.
Columbus went right back to their aggressive and fast attack forcing the Lightning defense to stretch themselves up and down the ice, eventually leading to Victor Hedman taking an interference penalty and putting Tampa Bay on the penalty kill again.
The Lightning penalty kill did a strong job eventually drawing a tripping call to give Tampa Bay a reprieve with an abbreviated stint at 4v4 followed by a power-play. However, the ensuing power-play saw the Lightning fail to generate anything of note on the man advantage, aside from gifting Gustav Nyquist a shorthanded breakaway that saw Elliott make a great save.
Unfortunately, the Lightning’s inability to elevate their game this evening bit them minutes later as Bjorkstrand extended Columbus’ lead once again.
Tampa Bay went back to the penalty kill shortly after Columbus’ fourth goal. The penalty was killed effectively, and the remainder of the period played out as you would expect. The Lightning focused on stopping the defensive bleeding and ironing out the issues that troubled them all evening.
It paid off a little after Cooper pulled Elliott with a little over three minutes left in regulation as their offensive pressure, specifically Kucherov, drew a late penalty on Columbus. The ensuing man-advantage saw Perry deflect a Stamkos shot-pass to dress up the final score.
Columbus scored on an empty not long after.
Overall, the Lightning was chasing this game all evening at 5v5. Something they hadn’t done since their winning streak started. Games like this will happen, but usually, Tampa Bay’s effort looks more cohesive, their transition game alleviates some of the pressure, and their defensive structure holds together. Tonight, everything was a step below their normal level and Columbus took advantage of it at every turn. The Blue Jackets looked like a team gearing up for the post-season while Tampa Bay looked like they were playing out the string.
Which, overall, does it really matter at this point? With the Boston Bruins winning this evening they sit one point behind the Lightning with game 82 being the deciding factor over who plays the Toronto Maple Leafs or Carolina Hurricanes. From Tampa Bay’s perspective, it doesn’t matter who they play. They went through a gauntlet in last year’s playoffs as the third seed in the division and still won the Stanley Cup. The biggest thing the Lightning should be focusing on is staying healthy and making sure their game is still fundamentally sound. Tonight, it wasn’t up to snuff, but it isn’t something to wring our hand over. We’ll see who Tampa Bay plays in the postseason tomorrow night.