What a difference four periods can make. Heading into the third period of Game One, the Lightning led Columbus, 3-1, and were in good position to secure a win. Since then, however, the Blue Jackets have outscored the Lightning, 8-1, delivered a dominant Game Two performance, and now own a 2-0 series lead. Making matters more difficult for the Lightning, they will have to play Game Three without suspended Nikita Kucherov, and, potentially, a banged-up Victor Hedman.
What has happened? And how do the Lightning reverse the narrative? It all stems from the "swag" factor. That's been the biggest element as to why the series has shifted.
Swag is how a team feels about itself. Collective confidence. Clubs that are playing with it tend to execute better and play decisively, without hesitation. Conversely, a team that takes a hit to its swag can head in the other direction. Columbus' three-goal third period in Game One affected each team's swag. And that played a big role in how Game Two unfolded.
Video: Johnson on approach to Game 3
I believe in momentum swings within games. They are the moments when one team plays as though the wind is at its back. That club is applying relentless pressure and it feels as though the other team is just hanging on. These surges come and go, however, and it's difficult to sustain them throughout a whole game. Still, these momentum swings are real and they tend to be more drastic during playoff games.
But I have never believed that momentum carries over from one game to the next in a playoff series. A momentum surge from the end of the previous contest doesn't continue when the opening faceoff occurs in the ensuing game. What's more likely is that a team in a less advantageous spot in the series may begin the game with some pushback. But that didn't happen in this series - the Lightning did not have a good start to Game Two, even though they had dropped the opening contest.
What did carry over, though, was the swag factor. (Some might define that as "momentum", but I'd classify it more as a mindset). I know that we've heard that what happens in a regular season series has little bearing on what may occur in a playoff matchup. But in this case, there may have been some relevance. In their three regular season losses to the Lightning, the Blue Jackets decisively carried play for one period in each of those games. But they hadn't gotten rewarded (or rewarded enough) to rally or grab a lead. It finally happened in Game One. At the same time, the Lightning endured a loss in shocking fashion. Then, at the start of Game Two, the Lightning looked tentative while the Blue Jackets settled into a tight, solid defensive structure. As I wrote in my Extra Shift column after Game Two, Columbus delivered an A-plus defensive performance. They looked like a team brimming with confidence, while the Lightning played with no swag to their game.
So the Blue Jackets enter Game Three feeling great about themselves while the Lightning have to rediscover their team confidence. The silver lining here, though, is that it's possible. As we have already seen in this series, swag can be flighty. Just look back to the beginning of Game One.
Remember how well Columbus defended throughout Game Two? The Blue Jackets looked nothing like that team at the start of Game One. The Lightning's forecheck led to multiple Columbus d-zone turnovers. Two of the Lightning goals resulted from failed Columbus clearing attempts. The Blue Jackets endured significant d-zone breakdowns - Anthony Cirelli and Yanni Gourde were open in front for their goals. And while it didn't result in a goal, Erik Cernak and a teammate had a two-on-zero opportunity following a Mathieu Joseph offensive zone steal.
Obviously, the Lightning didn't sustain that same level of pressure after the first period in Game One. In the second, their puck management became sloppy and Columbus enjoyed more puck possession. But the second period of Game One was a curious one. While it's true that the Lightning committed a costly offensive zone turnover that led to Nick Foligno's breakaway goal and that the Lightning weren't particularly crisp with the puck, the Bolts actually generated more dangerous scoring chances than Columbus in the period. Sergei Bobrovsky made five or six crucial saves to keep the Lightning at three goals. So the Blue Jackets did better in the second period than in the first in some areas - they had more possession and got one of the three goals back. But they were still struggling with team defense. It wasn't until the third - when they converted on their chances and rallied for the victory - that the swag balance truly shifted.
My overall point is that, as brilliantly as the Blue Jackets played defensively throughout Game Two, they did not demonstrate that same level for much of Game One. It was the confidence gained from the late comeback in Game One that led to the strong Game Two defensive performance.
That swag has also affected the special teams. The biggest swing in Game One came when Josh Anderson scored shorthanded to tie the game and then, minutes later, Seth Jones recorded the game-winner on the power play. The Blue Jackets, who finished 28th in the league on the power play during the regular season, have netted three power play goals in the series. The Lightning, first in the regular season, haven't scored any PPG. Columbus' critical third period kill during Brandon Dubinsky's four-minute double minor, which included the Anderson shorty, has given their PK swag. It's true that Columbus had a strong PK during the regular season, tying the Lightning and Arizona for first place. But they've been outstanding while shorthanded since that key double kill. Similarly, their power play, beginning with the Jones goal, is moving the puck crisply and looking dangerous. But earlier in Game One, when the Lightning were rolling, the special teams matchup looked very different. Columbus' first power play, which came early in the first period of Game One, generated no scoring chances and the Jackets surrendered a shorthanded goal to Alex Killorn. The Lightning's first power play chance in Game One yielded a two-on-zero look for Steven Stamkos and Kucherov (one of Bobrovsky's huge saves that period) and a Kucherov shot off the crossbar.
Video: J.T. Miller | Post-Practice
So how do the Lightning reverse the swag factor? If they are going to rebound, certainly they'll need to play better than they have for the bulk of the series. But having something good happen would help - just as it did for Columbus in the third period of Game One. They can't wait and hope for that thing to happen, though. They have to earn it. Confidence may be an intangible quality. But a team's compete level isn't. The Lightning will need to battle their way back into the light. And do it not only by working hard, but also, as Stamkos said after Game Two, working smart.
I'll add one more point. The Lightning are a skill, speed team. The Blue Jackets know they need to play a strong, structured physical game to neutralize that speed. Columbus did that effectively throughout Game Two. At the same time, the Blue Jackets have benefitted from what feels like a different playoff standard for obstruction. Plays that seem to be called regularly in the regular season have not been whistled so far in this series. While I don't believe the officiating factored into the Game Two result (Columbus clearly deserved the victory), the Lightning have to expect that the series will continue to be officiated the same way. It's a fair topic to debate as to whether a speedy, skilled team should have to overcome more obstruction once the playoffs begin, but that's a topic for another day. What's important for the Lightning is that they must expect that they're going to have to fight through more obstruction in this series than they had to during the regular season. To do so, they need to battle. Which, as mentioned earlier, will be a key building block in regaining their mojo.