They didn’t win the Stanley Cup last season, but the Tampa Bay Lightning played this year as if they intended to rectify the situation. In fact, the Lightning were so good at times it looked as if all the other teams in the NHL were on double-runners trying to chase them down.
Of course, this regular season business is only the appetizer in sports. It’s an indicator of talent, but not a guarantee of a championship. And like they say in the playoffs, the first team to 16 wins gets to hoist Lord Stanley’s chalice when it’s over.
Well, it’s already over for the Lightning and they didn’t even get to one. The Columbus Blue Jackets, the pure definition of an eighth seed, a team which had never won a playoff series, had won only two home playoff games and didn’t even wrap up a wild card this season until the final few days, swept them.
And just in case people didn’t think the Blue Jackets were serious, the drubbed the Lightning 7-3 in Tuesday’s Game 4 just to prove their point. This wasn’t a series. It was an execution.
“Twenty f-ing years coming,” Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno shouted after the game.
Tampa entered the playoffs with 128 points, a points percentage of .780, the second-highest in an 82-game season in NHL history. We repeat: In NHL history!
Only the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings, with Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman and 131 points with .799 point percentage, glided along more effortlessly when it really didn’t matter. They did reach the conference finals, however.
Tampa was in the playoffs after just 68 games and then spent the remainder of the season honing and primping and getting their playoff beards ready for a long growth spurt. They had the league’s best power play and were its top scoring team. Thirty of their wins were by three goals or more.
“When you have the amount of points we had, it’s a blessing and a curse, in a way. You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Game 4. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season, and we had a historic playoff.”
That they did. After leading 3-0 in Game 1, it all slipped away. Never in NHL history had a team with the most points in the regular season been swept in the first round. Let’s hope everyone signed the team yearbook. The 25th anniversary get-together ought to be a lot of laughs.
“Columbus is pretty good at shutting it down. They never did that in the regular season because they were always chasing us,” Cooper said. “The last time we played here, we had a 5-1 lead, and they had completely outplayed us. We just scored every time we went down the ice.”
As usual, the team that won had the best goaltender and that’s what Sergei Bobrovsky was. He’d won two Vezina Trophies in his career, but was 5-14 with a 3.49 goals against in playoff games. This time around he allowed only 2.01 goals per game and stopped over 93 percent of the shots against him. Tampa scored only five goals in the final 11 periods of the series.
And the defense in front of him was superb. Remember us saying that Tampa’s power play was the best in the NHL? Well, they scored only one goal on just six power-play opportunities while Columbus was scoring five man-advantage goals.
And what about Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov, who led the NHL in scoring this season? He missed Game 3 because of a suspension received for an illegal check in Game 2.
“They executed a detailed game plan to slow us down, and we didn’t have a response to it,” the Lightning’s Steve Stamkos said. “You have to give them some credit. Everyone’s going to talk about us losing the series, but they did a lot of good things. We just didn’t have an answer.”
They had the answer in the regular season when they outscored Columbus 17-3 in their three meetings.
“It’s hard to win in this league. It’s tough not to be holding up the Stanley Cup at the end, but how many teams have gone through this? They knock at the door and knock at the door and then … you look at Washington, for example,” Cooper said. “They had two remarkable years and got bounced in the second round, and the year no one expected them to do anything, they won the Stanley Cup.”