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Anatomy of a playoff collapse

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 1

28 points and 62 victories – earning a share of the all-time NHL record for profit – losing 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 did a team that seemed destined for a Stanley Cup see it swipe? How could a group that the Vegas sportsbooks pegged as a minus-400 favorite before the series cash out in four games?

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" It's tough to pinpoint one thing, "McDonagh said. "We hurt ourselves in a lot of different fashions. Strengths that were keys to our 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 Lightning's 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 8-seed

The Blue Jackets weren't your typical second wild card. In fact, they had more points in the regular season than three Western Conference playoff teams. Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Before opening up the corpse of the Lightning determine the internal causes of their demise, notably the Columbus Blue Jackets with the praise they deserve.

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 an expected goals percentage (50.87), which was better than six playoff teams.

They were completely adequate teams that were turned into the largest of underdogs by virtue of the Lightning's regular 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.)

1 Related

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, a critical game, threw us all off their scent as a contender.)

The other trend is that this is the third straight season the Jackets have made the playoffs . They went into 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 putting It's so important that it's been three years in a row for us. Hopefully, you're ready for that. It's not new to you, "Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said.

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 started in a franchise postseason record for goals in the first period, and they looked thoroughly outmatched. This is what the Lightning did during the regular season: Score early and often (their 102 first-time goals were with San Jose for most in the NHL), and by a large margin (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 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 has 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 note 5-4. " The Lightning tried to win Game 1 by, like, 8-0. Instead, the Jackets got a critical mistake in the fight and scored 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: 9 separately.

During the entire regular-season, the Lightning lost back -to-back games once, in early November when Vasilevskiy was injured. They thought they could go 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.

"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 went into game 2. That was a 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)

After a season for which he'll most likely win the Hart Trophy as the NHL MVP, Nikita Kucherov was a non-factor in this series, especially after he was suspended for Game 3. Scott Audette / NHLI / Getty Images

In Game 3, the Lightning were without 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. 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 shot at a player in a prone position, delivered out of frustration with Columbus handily ahead of 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. (19659024) 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 into 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.

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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 before the 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 goal percentage of 54.86, and 54.17 percent of the scoring chances over four games. But the extra four goals with the man made all the difference.

"Special teams were 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, "Stamkos.

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

The Columbus forecheck

Last month, we published an article called "Tampa Bay Lightning Can Be Defeated," long before anyone considered this plausible. One section seems particularly prophetic after the blue jackets' sweep: That a team playing an effective prechecking game could slow down an offensive juggernaut to a crawl.

The Washington Capitals proved this last season in playing 1-1-3 stairs that bounced the Jackets, Penguins, Lightning and Golden Knights and 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 deal; two other forwards provide neutral zone support to either pressure 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 Move the puck and move our feet. Don't 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. 19659004] "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

Sergei Bobrovsky reversed the trend on his typical playoff struggles, perhaps sending a message to the rest of the NHL that this year will be different altogether. Jamie Sabau / NHLI via Getty Images

One of the reasons the Blue Jackets had 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 makes Bobrovsky 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, 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 set-up, the Blue Jackets getting fast superior to 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 simply couldn't flip the switch on for the postseason after coasting for months.

"When you have the amount of points we have, 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 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 roll into the playoffs having played meaningful games over the previous three weeks, and playing them well: es, giving up two or fewer goals in each of those victories.

"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 was a blemish on what was one hell of a regular season." Then again, Cooper was out-coached

It would be hard to argue that John Tortorella was not the better the coach in this series. Jeff Vinnick / NHLI via Getty Images

On March 26, the Lightning announced a contract extension for Jon Cooper's head coach, 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.

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 was slow to adjust to it.

He also made some flat out mistakes, as failing to identify the psychological damage the Bolts had after Game 1; being unable to get Vasilevskiy off for an additional attack 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 it would be a 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 and game-winning goals. 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, did not 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 spell off elimination . But the fact that the Lightning was in that position is very much a product of their lack of production earlier in the series.

'It wasn't our time'

The Lightning have some questions to ask themselves this offseason. Aaron Doster / USA TODAY Sports

Kucherov sat in his stall, looking stunned, asking 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, may 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. 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 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 act adversity.

"I don't know," said Cooper. "I don't know," said Cooper. "It's funny: We're going to go this year, and we do now. In 2015, no one expected us to go anywhere, and we went, with the same core of players," he said. "It's hard to win in this league. It's tough to keep 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 one was expected 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, 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. One of the greatest regular-season teams in NHL history saw their postseason last only four frustrating games.

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