They were outshot, physically pounded and they coughed up a two-goal lead to a team that had haunted their dreams since last season. So of course the Tampa Bay Lightning rallied to win an elimination game in overtime, right?
Brayden Point was the hero for the Bolts, who knocked off the stubborn Columbus Blue Jackets in five games to move on to the next round of the playoffs. Tampa Bay didn’t play particularly well on the afternoon, but the Lightning did enough to get through and in the process, probably learned a lesson that will serve the team well as they seek their first Stanley Cup championship since 2004. Because this Columbus team gave the Bolts quite the competition in the series, but also a template for what the Lightning will likely face in the ensuing rounds.
These Blue Jackets play a heavy, structured game that forces opponents into mistakes. That was certainly the case last year when Columbus swept Tampa Bay in one of the most shocking upsets in NHL history and this year’s Jackets were more than happy to play in tight games. How the Lightning reacted this time was the difference.
“Throughout the year we’ve done a really good job trying to win games like that,” said Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson. “In years past we weren’t as comfortable in close games, in one-goal games, and we’ve done a good job focusing on that. The guys stuck together and everyone was working hard. We were winning those games as a team.”
And how did they do it? The answer had to come from a combination of sacrifice and pragmatism.
“You try to put egos aside and realize you don’t have to keep scoring goals,” Johnson said. “There are times where you have to make that safer play, maybe dump it in rather than make that hero pass that can go the other way. We had to grow as a group a little bit.”
And this is a different Lightning team from last year. Blake Coleman, Patrick Maroon and Barclay Goodrow make the squad harder to play against, while defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (who had a key goal in the game) brought a leadership dimension that specifically paid off in Game 5 when he roused the troops during intermission when the mood was low.
“We were playing on our heels a bit,” Shattenkirk said. “And you have to also realize they’re playing for their lives out there, they’re playing for their season. That’s the Columbus team everyone knows so well. Even when we were down by two, we kept our attitude in the right frame of mind and we were resilient. We waited for our chances because we knew they would come.”
The fact it was the Blue Jackets, that same playoff bete noire from the year before, was a pretty funny little wrinkle for the hockey gods to throw into what has been one of the most unique NHL seasons ever, as Lightning coach Jon Cooper pointed out.
“It’s easy to sit up here and say ‘we wanted them’ now,” he said. “But it was good to get them and good to get this result. A lot of learning went into last year and we had to grow as a team. We didn’t necessarily need to tweak how we played the game. I don’t know if it was as much on structure as it was between the ears. All of us, from the coaching staff on down, had to be a little harder, we had to be better.”
With the Blue Jackets vanquished, the Lightning can now rest up until their next opponent is revealed. More likely than not, it’s going to be a team with similar defensive excellence to Columbus and it will likely be a team that will make Tampa Bay pay a physical toll once again. Be it Boston, Philadelphia or the New York Islanders, the Bolts will have to go through two of those squads just to get to the Cup final – and then the challenge will come from the best of the West.
But as Point noted, these Bolts have learned to deal with the ups and downs. They saw plenty of both in Game 5 and ultimately came away with a 5-4 overtime victory thanks to a Blue Jackets turnover and decisive plays by Nikita Kucherov and Point. Now it’s on to the next challenge.