Somehow, despite winning 62 games in the regular season, tied for the most in NHL history, and accumulating the fourth-most points (128) all-time in the League, the Lightning just couldn't find their game in the postseason when it mattered most. Columbus completed a historic moment in its franchise's history on Tuesday, winning a playoff series for the first time, following a 7-3 victory at Nationwide Arena.
The game was closer than the score indicated. Down one, the Bolts battled over the final period to tie the game but couldn't break through, the Blue Jackets scoring three empty-net goals over the final 1:53, each one stabbing like a knife in the stomach that dug in deeper and deeper with each blaring of the goal horn and each roar from the crowd and each cannon blast.
This one's tough and not sure how long it will take to get over, if at all.
We'll try to work through it together.
Three Things from the Game 4 loss.
Video: Cooper | Postgame ECQF Game 4
1. EARLY DEFICIT
Since opening up a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 1 before eventually falling 4-3, Tampa Bay played from behind pretty much the entire series, part of the reason why the Lightning had so much trouble gaining a foothold into the opening round series.
Columbus scored the opening goal in Games 2 and 3 to force the Lightning to chase the rest of the way.
Down 0-3 in the series Tuesday night, scoring first would be absolutely critical for a Lightning team whose confidence was already teetering.
So, falling behind 2-0 before four minutes had even passed in the game was probably the worst thing that could have happened to the Bolts.
Alexandre Texier snapped a shot from the top of the left circle on an early power play, one the Blue Jackets got :45 seconds into the game on a slashing call to Ryan McDonagh, to give Columbus the first goal and a 1-0 lead at 2:26.
Just 1:22 later, Pierre-Luc Dubois backhanded a carom off the end boards past Andrei Vasilevskiy to make it 2-0 and ignite an already frothing-at-the-mouth Nationwide Arena crowd.
"Well, it goes to show you a little bit of the character of the team to be down 2-0 within the first four minutes of the game and they just battled and battled and battled and we get it to three and we take an unfortunate penalty there and they score on the 6-on-5," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "But that all comes down to special teams. It's not the lack of power plays or anything like that. We just couldn't kill them off. You give up a power-play goal and you give up a 6-on-5 goal. That's it. Look at the series and how close it was, I know the score doesn't look that way but it's a one-goal game and ultimately special teams was the difference in all of them. You're really disappointed for how well we executed in the regular season."
The Lightning didn't let the early deficit rattle them. They continued to work hard to find a way into the series and tied the game 3-3 late in the second period.
"We didn't look at the score," Nikita Kucherov said. "We just tried to keep our heads and stay in our system."
The early deficit ensured, though, the Lightning would have to dig themselves out of a hole yet again, much like the deficit in the series in general.
Video: Stamkos | Postgame ECQF Game 4
2. COLUMBUS' QUICK RESPONSE
Trailing 3-1 following Seth Jones' second goal of the series 6:28 into the second period, the Lightning began their comeback bid.
Cedric Paquette outworked Scott Harrington in front of the net to get in front of the Columbus defenseman and get his stick blade on Braydon Coburn's shot from the point to cut the deficit back to one at 13:03 of the second. About five minutes later, Brayden Point capitalized on Tampa Bay's lone power-play of the game, the third-year center weaving his way through the offensive zone, splitting Jones and Brandon Dubinsky to get free in front and backhanding a shot over Bobrovsky to tie the game 3-3. The goal was the first (and only) on the power play for the Lightning of the series.
The Lightning had momentum. They finally were back on level terms with the Blue Jackets in Game 4. The pendulum was starting to shift in Tampa Bay's favor.
And then Oliver Bjorkstrand rifled a shot past Vasilevskiy on a delayed penalty kill just :54 seconds later to undo all of the Lightning's hard work to get the game tied.
"That was a key moment in the game," Columbus head coach John Tortorella said.
Getting the lead back meant the Blue Jackets could pack it in defensively and spend the final 20 minutes protecting their one-goal advantage. Columbus was phenomenal all series in the way they defended and not allowing the Lightning to use their speed and skill to get in close for high-quality chances.
The Blue Jackets used that formula again in the third period. Although the Lightning outshot Columbus 13-5 and were buzzing around the Jackets' net for nearly the entirety of the final period, they couldn't find a way through, partly because of that defensive structure and partly because Bobrovsky was a wall in net.
Had the Lightning been able to get into the second intermission with the game tied, perhaps Columbus would have come out of its structure a bit as it pushed for the go-ahead goal and perhaps the Lightning couldn have taken advantage of a softening defense.
It just wasn't meant to be.
"We obviously didn't have the answer today," Stamkos said. "They executed obviously a very detailed game plan to slow us down. We didn't really have that I thought. You've got to give them some credit. Everybody's going to talk about us losing the series, but that's a good team over there. They did a lot of good things and we just didn't have an answer."
Video: Callahan | Postgame ECQF Game 4
3. PUZZLING SPECIAL TEAMS BREAKDOWNS
Probably the biggest surprise of the First Round, other than getting swept in the series itself, was Tampa Bay's ineffectiveness on special teams, particularly the penalty kill, throughout the series.
The power play had its moments, including Point's goal to tie the game. But power plays were few and far between for the Lightning, whether that was the product of one-sided officiating or the Bolts not working hard enough to earn those power plays. And there were failures on the power play too, particularly in Game 1 when they held a one-goal lead in the third period and had a chance to put the game away with a four minute minor for a high-stick and ended up allowing a shorthanded goal that tied the game.
But the real head scratcher was the penalty kill.
A unit that had been so effective all season was decidedly ineffective in the playoffs, to the point that by Game 4, whenever the Blue Jackets went on the power play, the expectation was they would score.
Columbus went 1-for-2 on the power play in the series clincher and 5-for-10 overall in the series.
The Lightning entered the playoffs with the League's top-ranked penalty kill.
"We gave them a little bit of momentum (on the power play), and it started early in the series," Cooper said. "They scored the game-winner (in Game 1) I think on the power play. When you start feeling good about yourself, that's kind of how you get on a roll. Columbus didn't (start to) feel good about themselves in the playoffs. I think they won seven of eight down the stretch. I think they've only lost one game in their last 11 or 12 or something like that. Their game turned around at the absolute right time. For us, it's like when you have the amount of points we had, it's a blessing and it's a curse in a way because you don't play really any meaningful hockey for a long time and then all of a sudden you've got to amp it up. It's not an excuse, it's a reality. That's how it goes. And so you have a historic regular season the way we did and had a basically a historic playoff in defeat. Can't take away from how battling adversity, all that stuff, our guys battled hard. Columbus, as I said, for six days in April, Columbus played better than we did. That was it."
The Lightning were without key members of their penalty kill for much of the First Round series. Anton Stralman didn't play at all in the series as a lingering lower-body injury wouldn't allow him to take the ice. Victor Hedman suffered an upper-body injury in the final week of the regular season, came back for Games 1 and 2, but couldn't go in the final two games. Those two munch a lot of minutes on the penalty kill for the Lightning.
But in the regular season, the Lightning were able to deal with injuries without missing a beat. They plugged someone else in and kept on winning.
They didn't have enough plugs to fill all the holes in the playoffs, however.
"It's tough to pinpoint one thing. We hurt ourselves in a lot of different fashions," McDonagh said. "Strengths of ours that were keys to us winning in the regular season we didn't get in done in the series, five-on-five, special teams, you look back at the four games and they win all those categories."
"We're a very confident group after the regular season, confident in our abilities coming into the series," Ryan Callahan said. "Obviously knew it wasn't going to be easy against a very hard to play against team, made some key acquisitions at the trade deadline. At the end of the day, you obviously don't see this coming. We had confidence coming in. We were hoping for a deep playoff run and I sit here now and it's hard to put into words how you feel."