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Lightning eliminated from playoffs after playmaking disappears

Special teams struggles, Kucherov suspension help lead to ouster by Blue Jackets

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Tampa Bay Lightning became the first team to win the Presidents' Trophy and get swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the same season.

After tying an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season and finishing with 128 points, fourth all-time, the Lightning could never find their game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round and lost four straight.

"They were the better team," Lightning center and captain Steven Stamkos said. "They executed their game plan. I don't know. I don't know what to say. If we had the answers we would have found a way to win a game. It's [stinks]."

Here are 5 reasons the Lightning were eliminated:

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Blue Jackets series coverage]

 

1. Playmaking neutralized

The Lightning led the NHL in goals this season (319) by being an elite playmaking team, which gave them confidence to never feel they were out of a game and why they led the League in wins when the opponent scored first (23), wins when trailing after the first period (15) and wins when trailing after two periods (nine). 

But that playmaking eluded Tampa Bay against the Blue Jackets, who used a suffocating forecheck and aggressive pressure in the defensive zone to limit the Lightning's ability to skate with the puck and make plays.

The Lightning scored five goals in the last 11 periods of the series after scoring three in the first period of Game 1.

"We didn't skate for a lot of the series," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We didn't play at the pace that we needed to."

 Video: What is the next step for the Tampa Bay Lightning?

 

2. Failed penalty kill …

The penalty kill was one of the Lightning's strengths this season; they were tied for the NHL lead with the Blue Jackets and Arizona Coyotes at 85.0 percent. It was a remarkable turnaround from the previous season, when Tampa Bay was 28th at 76.1 percent.

The Lightning allowed goals on five of Columbus' 10 power play opportunities (50 percent); that doesn't include forward Oliver Bjorkstrand's go-ahead goal at 18:46 of the second period in Game 4, scored during a delayed penalty. 

Worse yet, the goals were backbreakers; the game-winning goals in Games 1, 2 and 3 were each scored on the power play and Bjorkstrand's extra-man goal in Game 4 was also the game-winner.

 

3. … and power play, too

It would be easy to lament the Lightning's lack of man-advantage chances in the past two games: they did not have a power-play opportunity in Game 3 and scored on their one chance in Game 4.  

But in Games 1 and 2, their power play was 0-for-5 with seven shots on goal and one shorthanded goal against. 

"Didn't get it done," Stamkos said.

The series could have gone down a different path had it not been for Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky's save on forward Nikita Kucherov's one-timer from the slot during a Tampa Bay power play 26 seconds into the second period of Game 1. 

That would have given the Lightning a 4-0 lead; instead, Bobrovsky made the save and Blue Jackets forward Nick Foligno scored at 9:15 to cut the deficit to 3-1. 

Columbus scored three more goals in the third period, including forward Josh Anderson's game-tying shorthanded goal.

 

4. Kucherov's suspension 

Kucherov, the NHL's leading scorer in the regular season with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), was unable to play Game 3 because of a one-game suspension for boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara with 4:26 remaining in the third period of Game 2.

Without Kucherov in Game 3, Tampa Bay struggled offensively with to get anything going offensively without Kucherov through most of the first two periods of Game 3, managing 14 shots on goal, including three in the first period. 

They finally started to push late in the second and forward Ondrej Palat scored 4:40 into the third to cut Columbus' lead to 2-1; Kucherov's skill, playmaking and scoring could have been a huge factor.

But forward Cam Atkinson scored an empty-net goal with one minute remaining to seal the game for Columbus.

 

5. Hedman, Stralman injuries 

Victor Hedman, the Norris Trophy winner last season, missed the last four games of the regular season with an upper-body injury. He tried to give it a go in Games 1 and 2, but struggled and was a minus-2 and didn't play the last two games of the series because of an undisclosed injury.

Fellow defenseman Anton Stralman did not dress at all in the series because of a lower-body injury that bothered him late in the regular season. 

That's two of the Lightning's top three leaders in ice time, their best defenseman (Hedman) and another who has appeared in 104 playoff games (Stralman). 

Their injuries forced the Lightning to move 21-year-old Mikhail Sergachev into a top-pair role in Games 3 and 4 with Dan Girardi, who may not have been on the top pair had Stralman been healthy. Jan Rutta, arguably Tampa Bay's eighth defenseman, played in all four games.

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