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Behind The Numbers

Blue Jackets, Islanders use similar formulas in first-round sweeps

Hot goalies, effective special teams among keys to early playoff elimination of Lightning, Penguins

by Scott Cullen / Correspondent

Hot goaltending, excellent special-teams play and above-average performances from key players were the keys for the two first-round Stanley Cup Playoff upsets completed Tuesday.

The Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off the biggest upset of the first round, sweeping the Tampa Bay Lightning in historic fashion in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Lightning tied an NHL single-season record with 62 wins but became the first team with the best record in the regular season to be swept in a first-round, best-of-7 series.

Less than an hour later, the New York Islanders eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games in the Eastern Conference First Round, completing their first postseason sweep since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers. Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup in two of the past three seasons; New York reached the second round once (in 2016) since 1993 and missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

Video: Islanders, Jackets complete the sweep, Jets win in OT

Each sweep was stunning in its own way, but the elimination of the Lightning is the talk of hockey.

The playoff series victory was the first for the Blue Jackets since they entered the NHL for the 2000-01 season. Columbus had lost each of its five previous first-round series.

The Lightning led 3-0 after the first period of Game 1 and looked every bit like a team favored to win the Stanley Cup. But Columbus outscored Tampa Bay 19-5 during the next 11 periods. It was a shocking change of fortune for a team that finished 21 points ahead of the next-closest teams, the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames, and had the NHL's best goal differential (plus-98).

The Lightning scored once on six power-play opportunities (16.7 percent) in the series and surrendered one shorthanded goal, making the top regular-season power play (28.2 percent) even through four games. The Blue Jackets, who were 28th on the power play during the regular season (15.4 percent), scored on five of their 10 opportunities in the series.

While some underlying numbers suggest that the series was more even than a sweep would suggest, a closer look does not support that contention.

The Lightning controlled 54.68 of the shot attempts against Columbus, but that reflected how often they were chasing the game. When trailing, the Lightning generated 60.95 percent of 5-on-5 shot attempts and an abysmal 36.36 when the game was tied.

Held off the scoresheet through the first three games of the series, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos did get on the board with a goal and an assist in Game 4, but he was undone by poor percentages when he was on the ice at 5-on-5. The Lightning controlled 52.34 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts with Stamkos on the ice but scored on 3.6 percent of the shots. During the regular season, the Lightning controlled 52.06 percent of the shot attempts with Stamkos on the ice, but the Lightning scored on 10.0 percent of the shots. When pucks aren't going in, even the best teams are fighting uphill.

Center Matt Duchene led Columbus with seven points (three goals, four assists) in four games. Duchene, acquired in a trade from the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 22, had an NHL career-high 70 points this season; however, he struggled after coming to Columbus, finishing with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 23 games.

Video: TBL@CBJ, Gm3: Duchene roofs backhander on rebound

Once the momentum started turning in favor of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning encountered more obstacles, making it more difficult to get back into the series.

Defenseman Victor Hedman, last season's Norris Trophy winner, was injured and missed Tampa Bay's final four regular-season games. He returned for the start of the playoffs but struggled in the first two games before sitting out Games 3 and 4. Anton Stralman, another top-four defenseman, missed all four games against Columbus.

By contrast, the top two defensemen for Columbus, Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, were impact players; they combined for nine points and each averaged more than 25 minutes of ice time per game.

Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov, the NHL's scoring leader with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), was suspended for Game 3. Under normal circumstances, that might not have been a big deal for a team as deep as the Lightning. But after losing the first two games at home, the Lightning suddenly appeared more vulnerable than they had at any point during the season. Kucherov returned for Game 4; he finished with two assists and was minus-4 in the series.

Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had an .856 save percentage after winning 39 games and finishing with a .925 save percentage during the regular season. By comparison, Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky had a .932 save percentage in the series, up from .913 during the regular season.

Finally, the Blue Jackets might have been stronger than a typical wild card team. They finished with 98 points, better than three playoff teams in the Western Conference, but appeared to underachieve during the season relative to the talent on their roster, even after deciding to add before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25. They did go 7-1-0 in their final eight regular-season games, outscoring opponents 34-14.

If it is a matter of the Blue Jackets putting it together at the right time, then they are a team that has the potential to win more than one round.

The other upset was different. The Islanders finished second in the Metropolitan Division, three points ahead of Pittsburgh. But the Penguins have the pedigree of playoff success, having won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017.

As it was all season, goaltending was a big part of the first-round success for the Islanders. Robin Lehner had a sensational regular season, posting a .930 save percentage in 46 games. He was even better against the Penguins, finishing with a .956 save percentage in the four-game sweep.

Video: Lehner's stellar play leads Islanders to Round 2

The Penguins held a 136-129 shot advantage in the series but were outscored 14-6.

The Islanders never let Pittsburgh get any momentum in the series. Pittsburgh scored the first goal in each of the final three games of the series, but the Islanders responded with a goal of their own within three minutes each time. Pittsburgh didn't score again in any of the three games and led for a total of 4:51 in the series.

Although the Penguins recorded 55.75 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts in the series, they were undone by a combined 5-on-5 SPSV% of 924, broken down by a shooting percentage of 3.6 and save percentage of .888. During the regular season, the Penguins had a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 8.3 percent and save percentage of .931 for a combined SPSV% of 1,014. The Penguins may have generated more shot attempts in this series, but they were so far below their typical percentages that their advantage in shot attempts did not offer an overall advantage.

Patric Hornqvist may have been going through the hardest luck. When he was on the ice, the Penguins controlled 65.49 percent of 5-on-5 shot attempts, but scored on 2.4% of their shots. He paced the Penguins with 15 shots on goal in the series, but failed to record a point in the four games.

Forward Jordan Eberle was top scorer for the Islanders with six points (four goals, two assists). Eberle had 37 points (19 goals, 18 assists) in 78 regular-season games and had not scored in any of his first 13 Stanley Cup Playoff games, all with the Oilers in 2017. He was more aggressive and more effective in the first round against Pittsburgh, averaging 3.75 shots on goal per game, a notable increase over his regular-season average (2.05).

Pittsburgh scored once on 11 power-play opportunities (9.1 percent) after finishing at 24.6 percent during the regular season, fifth in the NHL.

With the Presidents' Trophy-winning Lightning and the perennial Cup-contending Penguins out of the picture, the race to represent the Eastern Conference in the Final is wide open.

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