That was a dismantling, not a playoff series. A whooping, not a battle.
An epic collapse.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, quite literally one of the greatest regular-season teams in NHL history, were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. A 7-3 loss on Tuesday sealed Tampa’s fate.
The Lightning looked like a shell of themselves from the second period of Game 1 until the final buzzer in Game 4, which sent Nationwide Arena into a tizzy. Tampa is the first-ever Presidents' Trophy winner to be swept in the opening round, and it lost to a team that needed 81 games to earn a playoff spot.
Let’s pour one out for the juggernaut and tip our cap to Columbus, the worthy underdog. Here are four takeaways from the upset:
Will can overpower skill
If the first week of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs has taught us one thing, it’s this: The postseason is an entirely different animal than the regular season.
Yes, the go-time switch is flipped every spring, but this year feels different. The phenomenon is more pronounced than in previous playoffs, or so it seems.
The Blue Jackets sweeping the Lightning, and the Islanders sweeping the Penguins, both count as surprises. One, of course, is infinitely more surprising than the other, but in both instances the hungrier team dominated.
On paper, Tampa is a powerhouse blessed with a tantalizing mix of high-end skill and talent, as well as depth and changeability. Columbus, on paper, is a pretty damn good hockey team too but, like 30 other teams, not quite comparable to peak Tampa.
Now, as the likes of power forward Josh Anderson, burgeoning sniper Oliver Bjorkstrand, and versatile defenseman David Savard proved, hockey isn’t won on paper. All three were tremendous against the Lightning, winning puck battles, scoring goals, and shutting down some of the opposition’s best players. They outplayed Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos.
The Blue Jackets' main bus drivers - forwards Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin, and Cam Atkinson, defensemen Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, as well as goalie Sergei Bobrovsky - most certainly did their parts too.
Together, the John Tortorella-led group out-willed a more talented Tampa squad. Once the team gained an edge, they never let it go.
Bobrovsky’s choke job is over
Cancel the classic narrative, because Bobrovsky’s playoff demons have officially been slain.
Bobrovsky turned aside 108 of 115 shots to earn a sterling .940 save percentage in four games. In 24 previous playoff appearances, he had accrued an .891 save percentage, countless boos, and a reputation as the two-time Vezina Trophy winner with no big-game clout.
Bobrovsky's five-on-five netminding was so outstanding in this series that it makes you wonder how long he can sustain such a high level of play. With Columbus' penalty kill conceding four goals, the pending UFA actually allowed on average just one even-strength marker per game despite facing 25 five-on-five shots.
At the other end of the rink, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t sharp (.856 save percentage) or supported well enough (faced 83 scoring chances). This early playoff exit is only partially his fault.
Jon Cooper never loses his cool
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is by nature a calm individual. He always appears to be in control of his emotions and prefers to take a glass-half-full approach to life. It’s what makes him who he is.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the first sign of life from Cooper - at least publicly - came Tuesday after he won an offside challenge and was caught by TV cameras trying to charge up the bench?
Still, it was a little odd that Cooper didn’t go off on a tirade behind the bench or deliver a soundbite through the media in the five days between the club’s worrisome series-opening loss and that series-closing challenge. It was low-hanging fruit.
Perhaps, though, Cooper didn’t want to break the mold, no matter what transpired.
These Lightning were so incredibly steady all year. They made winning 62 games, and never losing more than two in a row, look surgical. Cooper was a gigantic part of their season-long success and is in contention for coach of the year honors. Why change now, right?
Clearly, the guy knows what he’s doing. And he did encounter a number of injuries and a suspension to Kucherov, his best player. He had built-in excuses.
Yet, in a weird, lingering way, Cooper’s calmness projected a strange vibe.
These Blue Jackets might do more damage
Looking ahead, what’s the ceiling for the Blue Jackets?
It’s fair to recalibrate our expectations for this Eastern Conference wild-card team, seeing as it just walked all over everybody’s unanimous Stanley Cup pick and should have plenty of time to rest. Its second-round opponent will be the winner of the Maple Leafs-Bruins series, which may go seven games.
What's more, the Blue Jackets' previously woeful power play - somehow, with that personnel, it ranked 28th in the NHL during the regular season - is really clicking. Relying on five different scorers, Columbus rectified the situation against Tampa, bagging five tallies on just 10 opportunities.
Duchene, picked up from the Ottawa Senators in late February, collected four goals and three assists in the opening round and looks every bit the player Columbus hoped it had acquired. His presence adds another dynamic up front.
The stock of this group, as a whole, is sky-high right now. The Blue Jackets just won the first playoff round in franchise history against an all-time squad. They are dialed in and playing a brand of hockey that can upend just about any team in the East.
The best part? Whatever's next is gravy.
John Matisz is theScore's National Hockey Writer. You can find him on Twitter @matiszjohn.
Copyright © 2019 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.