Anatomy of a playoff collapse: What happened to the Lightning?

NHL

COLUMBUS — Ryan McDonagh sat in the silent Tampa Bay Lightning dressing room, where his teammates spent a few moments of quiet, frustrated contemplation before leaving for the offseason.

How could this happen? How could a Lightning team that had amassed 128 points and 62 victories, to earn a share of the all-time NHL record for wins, lose in four swift games to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and a team that finished 30 points behind them?

How could a team that seemed destined for a Stanley Cup see it swept aside? How could a group that the Vegas sportsbooks pegged as a minus-400 favorite before the series cash out in four games?

“It’s tough to pinpoint one thing,” said McDonagh. “We hurt ourselves in a lot of different fashions. Strengths that were keys to us winning in the regular season didn’t get it done in this series. They won all of those categories.”

What caused this historic playoff collapse, marking the first time in history that the league’s top team was swept in the first round, in a seven-game series?

Here’s the anatomy of the Lightnings’ loss to Columbus:

Jump ahead: Game 1 mistake | Injuries (and stupidity)
Un-special teams | The Wrath of Bob
They were out-coached | ‘It wasn’t our time’


The Jackets weren’t an eight-seed

Before opening up the corpse of the Lightning to determine the internal causes of their demise, let’s exalt the Columbus Blue Jackets with the praise they deserve.

This was not a No. 8 seed. This was the 13th best team in the NHL based on points, with 98, a higher total than three Western Conference playoff teams in the Dallas Stars (93), Vegas Golden Knights (93) and Colorado Avalanche (90). They were 12th in goals per game (3.12) and 11th in goals-against per game (2.82), outpacing several playoff teams in each category. They were 12th in expected goals percentage (50.87), which was better than six playoff teams.

They were a completely adequate team that was turned into the largest of underdogs by virtue of the Lightning’s juggernaut of a regular season, and the Vegas sportsbooks’ projections for the series. (The Lightning were minus-400 on the money line to win the series.)

But where the punditry failed was in identifying two trends. First, that the Blue Jackets had been a different team since a Western Canadian road trip that ended on March 24. They had a team meeting that cleared the air on some issues, and that meeting was cited by several players as having gotten them on the right course. They won seven of eight games to close the regular season, giving up two or fewer goals in each victory. (That 6-2 home loss to the Bruins on April 2, in a critical game, threw us all off their scent as a contender.)

The other trend is that this was the third straight season the Jackets made the playoffs. They went out in five to the Penguins in 2017, but gained experience. They won the first two games in Washington in 2018 and lost the series in six games, but gained more experience.

“The more and more playoff hockey you play, the more and more you feel comfortable in situations that you’re put in. It’s so important that it’s been three years in a row for us. Guys are getting more minutes, more experience in situations and with surges. Hopefully, you’re ready for that. It’s not new to you,” said coach John Tortorella.

So it wasn’t new for the Jackets to start the series well on the road, and perhaps they learned a thing or two about protecting that series lead on home ice after last postseason.

In Game 1, the Lightning tried to win 8-0 instead of 3-0

The Blue Jackets were a punchline after one period of Game 1 in Tampa. They were down 3-0, as the Lightning tied a franchise postseason record for goals in the first period, and looked thoroughly outmatched. This is what the Lightning did during the regular season: Score early and often, as their 102 first-period goals were tied with San Jose for most in the NHL; and win by a large margin, as 30 of their 62 wins were by three or more goals.

What they quickly discovered is that in the playoffs, opponents don’t tumble to the canvas after three quick punches. They stagger around and wait for some mistake or miscue that gets them back in the fight. Which is why Ryan McDonagh’s ill-advised pass, intercepted by the Blue Jackets and turned into a breakaway goal for Nick Foligno, was such a harbinger of doom.

That pinch by Erik Cernak and that pass by McDonagh are the kind of plays you make in the regular season when you think the other guys are already thinking about the next stop on their 82-game journey. When Josh Anderson tips it away to Foligno, the Lightning have five guys below the top of the circles in the attacking zone. And then he just smokes it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

From that point on, the Jackets took over the game at even strength, outside of a brief return to form from the Lightning to start the third period. They scored a shorthanded goal against the Lightning’s exalted power-play, and a power-play goal of their own.

Early this season, coach Jon Cooper said that to succeed in the playoffs, “We have to win games 2-1, and not 5-4.” The Lightning tried to win Game 1 by, like, 8-0. Instead, one critical mistake got the Jackets back in the fight and helped them score the first of a series of upsets.

The Game 2 hangover

Lightning center Tyler Johnson said that the team had a crisis of confidence during Game 1, getting away from making the plays they had all season. That carried over to Game 2: While the Lightning had the advantage during the game in shot attempts at 5-on-5, and played well in the first period despite giving up two goals, their expected goals percentage for the second (42.39) and third (48.54) was indicative of their failure to carry the play. The Blue Jackets won the game, 5-1, thanks to two power-play goals and an emphatic third period in which Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin scored 3:09 apart.

During the entire regular-season, the Lightning lost back-to-back games once, in early November when Vasilevskiy was injured. They thought they could walk into Game 2 and snap back into form. They were wrong. Blowing that three-goal lead in the Game 1 loss damaged their psyche for Game 2.

“You’re feeling pretty good about yourself when you’re up 3-0. And then we gift-wrapped that one for them. The problem was that it carried into Game 2. That was a little bit surprising for us. They scored in the first five minutes, and we didn’t respond like we should have,” said Cooper.

Injuries (and stupidity)

In Game 3, the Lightning were without two of their most important players, for very different reasons.

Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman clearly wasn’t himself in Games 1 and 2. He was in the negative in shot attempts and goal differential. He was spun like a top by Jackets defenseman David Savard (of all people) on a critical Game 1 goal. He missed the last four games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He missed Games 3 and 4 with an undisclosed injury.

Nikita Kucherov, the NHL’s leading scorer with 128 points and the prohibitive favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, missed Game 3 while serving a one-game suspension for boarding Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara in Game 2. It was a cheap shot on a player in a prone position, delivered out of frustration with Columbus handily ahead in the game.

Did the loss of Kucherov affect the Lightning? Absolutely. They found their offensive game in the third period and trailed by only a goal. Not having Kucherov on the ice to score or setup the equalizer was critical. In that sense, perhaps he is their most valuable player — glaring in his absence. Petulant, selfish plays that lead to suspensions aren’t exactly the stuff of MVPs. (Luckily, the Hart votes are already cast for what is a regular-season award, and Kucherov had a stellar one.)

Un-special teams

After Game 4, Kucherov was still trying to figure out what happened to his heralded power play. “No power plays. One PP in two games. It’s tough. I don’t know what to say,” he muttered.

No one does when it comes to the special teams disparity in this series. The Lightning had a power-play percentage of 28.1 in the regular season, which is the highest in NHL history for an 82-game season and the highest overall since the 1987-88 Calgary Flames were at 28.5 percent in an 80-game season. The Lightning had a 33.0 percent power-play percentage on the road, the highest since the NHL began tracking the stat in 1977.

Against the Blue Jackets? Their power play went 1-for-6, finally converting in Game 4. Part of the problem was not getting enough of them, which was a combination of specious officiating and the Jackets’ discipline — Columbus had the fewest times shorthanded in the regular season.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets’ power play morphed into the mid-1970s Montreal Canadiens, whipping the puck around and in constant motion. They finished 5-for-10 in the series against a Lightning penalty kill that finished tied for first in the NHL. Allowing your opponent a 50-percent conversion rate on the power play is the stuff of which sweeps are made.

The Columbus power play produced the game-winning goal in Games 1 and 2. The game-winner in Game 4 was also technically a special teams goal, scored 6-on-5 during a delayed penalty.

It can’t be stressed enough: The Lightning didn’t play horribly at 5-on-5. The Jackets scored eight even-strength goals to Tampa’s six. The Bolts had an expected goals percentage of 54.86, and 54.17 percent of the scoring chances over four games. But those extra four goals with the man advantage made all the difference.

“Special teams was huge for us in the season, and let us down in the playoffs. We didn’t get the bounces on the penalty kill, and they got confidence on the power play as the series went on,” said Stamkos.

Suffice it to say, they really missed Hedman on both of these units.

The Columbus forecheck

Last month, we published an article called “How the Tampa Bay Lightning can be defeated,” long before anyone considered this plausible. One section of it seems particularly prophetic after the Blue Jackets’ sweep: That a team playing an effective forechecking game could slow down an offensive juggernaut to a crawl.

The Washington Capitals proved this last season in playing a 1-1-3 trap that bounced the Jackets, Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights en route to the Stanley Cup. Columbus played a 1-2-2 system against the Lightning that effectively clogged up the neutral zone. One lead forward attempts to disrupt the Tampa Bay puck-handler; two other forwards provide neutral zone support to either pressure the puck-carrier or take away passing lanes; get through them, and the Jackets’ defensemen add another layer of support in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

“They’ve been on top of the puck. They’ve taken away the ice. It’s our job to find areas around it. Move the puck and move our feet. Not allow them to get in their setup that often,” said McDonagh.

Easier said than done. Until the offensive circus of Game 4, the Jackets had spent the previous eight periods plucking Tampa pucks — they had 30 takeaways in the series — and forcing the Lightning to play a chip-and-chase game when entering the offensive zone.

“We got behind and we got away from our identity, which is possessing pucks,” said Cooper.

When the Jackets had the puck, they handled it methodically, which is another key to defeating the Lightning: Slowing down the pace. As of March 11, the Jackets were 26th in the NHL in pace of play. The Lightning were 14th.

When they were able to get through the defensive front, there was another problem: Sergei Bobrovsky finally became a playoff goalie.

The Wrath of Bob

One of the reasons the Blue Jackets had yet to advance past the first round in the franchise’s history was Bobrovsky’s rather horrid playoff performance history. In 17 previous playoff games with Columbus, Bobrovsky had a 3.41 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage. Not great, Bob.

But in this postseason, he’s been a revelation: a .932 save percentage and a 2.01 goals-against average. Why the improvement?

“I think we have played pretty well in front of him along the way here. But he has, in times of games when we needed a huge save, he’s made them,” said Tortorella.

Remember that Foligno goal in Game 1? That only matters because Bobrovsky made a huge save on Nikita Kucherov that could have made the game 4-0. Later, he stopped Steven Stamkos when the Bolts’ captain could have made it 4-1.

In both games in Columbus, Bobrovsky weathered every offensive flurry the Lightning had, and outplayed Andrei Vasilevskiy across the ice. Vasilevskiy finished the series with a .856 save percentage and a 3.82 goals-against average. Among the many unpredictable facets of this upset, the Blue Jackets getting vastly superior goaltending was high on that list.

“I’m thrilled for him,” said Tortorella. “He’s got a bit of a burr, and that’s a pretty good thing for an athlete to have.”

The lack of adversity

One of Cooper’s pet theories about the demise of his Lightning is that they couldn’t simply flip the switch on for the postseason after coasting for months.

“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,” said Cooper after Game 4. “That’s how it goes: You have a historic regular season and we had a historic playoff.”

(Well, yes, it was historic: For the first time in the NHL, a team with the most points in the regular season failed to win a single game in an opening round seven-game series.)

Cooper’s argument is that the Blue Jackets rolled into the playoffs having played meaningful games over the previous three weeks, and playing them well: Columbus won seven of eight games, giving up two or fewer goals in each of those victories. Meanwhile, the Lightning lost their confidence in Game 1 and had one bad stretch that cost them their season.

“We couldn’t find our game. It’s that clear. For six days in April, we couldn’t find it,” said Cooper. “It’s unfortunate, because it puts a blemish on what was one hell of a regular season.”

Then again, Cooper was out-coached

On March 26, the Lightning announced a contract extension for head coach Jon Cooper, perhaps with the anticipation that his stock (and the price of it) would rise if and when the team won the Stanley Cup.

“He is the absolute best coach for our hockey team,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois at the time.

So … does that still apply?

Cooper is a brilliant coach. If Barry Trotz doesn’t win the Jack Adams for the post-John Tavares resurrection of the Islanders, Cooper will win it for one of the best regular seasons in NHL history. But in this series against the Blue Jackets, Cooper was out-coached and outmaneuvered by Tortorella. The Jackets committed to their system in ways the Lightning did not. Tactically, their defense trumped Cooper’s offense, and the Lightning were slow to adjust to it.

He also made some flat out mistakes, like failing to identify the psychological damage the Bolts had after Game 1; being unable to get Vasilevskiy off for an extra attacker in a timely manner in Game 3; and failing to make a coach’s challenge on the Jackets’ first goal in Game 4 for goalie interference, although he would successfully challenge one later on the basis of offside.

“It’s little things that haven’t happened during the year that snowballed during this series,” said Cooper, in an understatement.

The stars didn’t shine

The Blue Jackets got impact plays from impact talents. Matt Duchene had three goals and four assists. Artemi Panarin had two goals and three assists. Zach Werenski had five points, and Seth Jones had four points, both of them tallying a game-winning goal. Even Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s two goals were both game-winners, to go with two assists.

The Lightning … didn’t. Stamkos, who had 45 goals in the regular-season, had no points and was a minus-5 through three games. Point, who had 41 goals in the regular season, was scoreless through three, with a minus-2. Kucherov, who led the league with 128 points, didn’t score in the first two games of the series and then got himself suspended for Game 3.

All of them hit the scoresheet in Game 4 in an effort to stave off elimination. But the fact the Lightning were in that position is very much a product of their lack of production earlier in the series.

‘It wasn’t our time’

Kucherov sat in his stall, looking stunned, fielding questions about Game 4. “This sucks, yeah. Not much to say,” he said. “It’s a playoff. There’s no easy team. You have to give them credit. They fought hard. It wasn’t our time, I guess.”

This brings us to the last surgical exploration of the autopsy: That the Lightning, despite all of their success in the regular season and being a statistical steamroller in so many ways, just might not know how to win in the playoffs.

“If you don’t accomplish the goal of winning it all, it’s a failure. We don’t care about what happened in the regular season. We wanted to come in and play well. In that first game, we came out and got the early lead. And then we couldn’t gain any momentum in that game. We didn’t defend well enough as a team, this entire series,” said Stamkos.

So one is left wondering how, then, the Lightning can learn to win in the postseason. How to handle adversity. How to transfer what they did best in the regular season to the postseason.

Maybe it just takes time, like it did for the Blue Jackets.

“I don’t know,” said Cooper. “It’s funny: We’re expected to go far this year, and we do nowhere. In 2015, no one expected us to go anywhere, and we went far, with the same core of players,” he said. “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? 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.”

Changes will come for the Lightning. They have to, after a disaster of this magnitude. But given the core, and given the ages of the core, the window remains wide open to win.

Perhaps one day, while hoisting the Cup, the Lightning will think back to how this defeat was a formative moment for their group. Or, perhaps, they’ll think back to this year as what might have been, as one of the greatest regular-season teams in NHL history saw their postseason last only four frustrating games.

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