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Blue Jackets finding identity in playoffs, on verge of sweep

Playing with confidence against Lightning, know 'job is not over yet' after Game 3 victory

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

COLUMBUS -- The Columbus Blue Jackets are one win away from making NHL history.

A Presidents' Trophy winner has never been swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Blue Jackets earned that opportunity Sunday when they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied an NHL single-season record with 62 wins, 3-1 at Nationwide Arena to take a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference First Round.

Game 4 of the best-of-7 series is at Columbus on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN360, TVAS, FS-O, SUN).

 

[WATCH: Lightning vs. Blue Jackets Game 3 highlights | Complete series coverage]

 

"We've had confidence all year, we've just had trouble being consistent with our play, trying to find our identity," Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones said. "But you see once every guy buys in, we can do something special."

Before getting into Columbus' gambles that are paying off and why, first the particulars of how they're doing this against Tampa Bay must be noted. They are almost incomprehensible when you consider the Blue Jackets didn't clinch a berth in the playoffs until the penultimate day of the regular season and were outscored by the Lightning 17-3 in three regular-season games.

Video: Blue Jackets keep shocking, take 3-0 series lead

However, since falling behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, Columbus has outscored Tampa Bay 12-2 and has shut out Lightning forwards Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, who combined for 318 points (127 goals, 191 assists) in the regular season.

Kucherov didn't play in Game 3 because he was serving a one-game suspension for boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara late in Game 2.

Columbus is 4-for-8 on the power play after finishing the regular season 28th in the League at 15.4 percent. The Blue Jackets are 5-for-5 on the penalty kill and didn't allow the Lightning to have a power-play opportunity Sunday.

Sergei Bobrovsky, who in 24 playoff appearances entering the series was 5-14 with a 3.49 goals-against average and .891 save percentage, has allowed two goals on 71 shots (.972 save percentage) in the past eight periods.

Matt Duchene, who had never scored in eight playoff games before this series, has one in each of the past two games, including three assists in Game 2. He's been arguably Columbus' best forward.

The Blue Jackets also played Game 3 with two defensemen, Dean Kukan and Adam Clendening, in the lineup only because Nutivaara, Ryan Murray and Adam McQuaid are all out with injuries. 

Nutivaara was a late scratch after skating in pregame warmups, giving way to Clendening to play in his first NHL playoff game. He had three shots on goal in 9:16 of ice time, looking right at home in a limited role.

"We understand the odds were obviously stacked against us to start here," Jones said. "We kept our confidence within the room and went about our business. Job is not over yet so we're going to be happy about this one, but we're not going to get too excited."

The words used most by the Columbus players and coach John Tortorella after the game were humble, focused and confident. Nick Foligno, the Blue Jackets captain, said the team has had the mindset to live by those words since losing 4-1 to the Edmonton Oilers on March 21.

Why then?

"Everyone got pretty honest about where we were at that point," Foligno said. 

Video: Blue Jackets beat Lightning, go up 3-0 in series

The Blue Jackets were one point out of playoff contention with eight games to go. They went to play the Vancouver Canucks, the last game of a four-game road trip, on March 24 and it was just about must-win time.

"I think there was some honest conversation in who we are and sometimes you need that," Foligno said. "We came together at the right time to get us in this position."

They defeated the Canucks 5-0, starting a 7-1-0 stretch to finish the regular season. 

Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, the forwards that general manager Jarmo Kekalainen acquired in separate trades from the Ottawa Senators before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, finally found their fit in the Blue Jackets' lineup. 

The gambles of keeping forward Artemi Panarin and Bobrovsky, the two pending unrestricted free agents who all season were rumored to be on the move out of Columbus, started paying off in a massive way.

Bobrovsky played a huge role down the stretch for Columbus, going 6-1-0 with three shutouts, a .947 save percentage and 1.50 GAA in his final seven starts.

Everything for the Blue Jackets started to click and they carried the momentum into this series against the Lightning, fully confident and aware that if they stuck to their game plan of being tight with their gaps, aggressive on the forecheck, structured through the middle of the ice and opportunistic on their chances, that they could be in the exact position they are in today.

They were right.

"I'm not going to say we thought when this started that we were going to be up 3-0," Duchene said. "We did not anticipate that, but at the same time, we've played well enough to be up 3-0. I think this is exactly the type of hockey that management believed this team could play when they put kind of the finishing touches on.

"We don't have one passenger right now. That's something that is going to be very hard to sustain, but I believe we have the character in here to do that."

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