By the time the Tampa Bay Lightning and Columbus Blue Jackets had played as much playoff hockey last year as they did in Game 1 of their series in 2020, the Lightning had been outscored 11-4 and essentially were trailing 3-0 in their series against the Jackets. But that’s not what makes 2020 so different than 2019 for the Lightning. If they do fulfill their promise and win the Stanley Cup, they might just be able to point to the first game of the playoff marathon as their statement game.
There was a time when the Lightning would not have had the maturity and patience to stay comfortable in a situation that was as uncomfortable as a five-overtime game. But not once did they panic. Not once did they waver or lose their energy. Not once did they break down in 150 minutes and 27 seconds of hockey and six hours and 13 minutes of real time, which represents the fourth-longest game in NHL history. It was truly remarkable. If Brayden Point had not scored at 10:27 of the fifth overtime period with his ninth shot on goal in the game, the two teams would have combined for at least 300 shot attempts. The Lightning and Blue Jackets combined for 105 hits and the Blue Jackets blocked a ridiculous 62 shots. Victor Hedman had 12 of his shots blocked alone. Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones played 65 minutes and six seconds, the most ice time a player has logged since the NHL became keeping track of time on ice.
In fact, there was a rumor that Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who has been raising eyebrows by wearing a tracksuit behind the bench, was prepared to emerge from his team’s dressing room wearing his pajamas if the game had gone into another overtime period. Here’s how long this game was: When it started, Eddie Olczyk and Anson Carter were the intermission analysts for NBC Sports and Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp were the analysts by the time it ended.
By the time the Lightning and Blue Jackets had played 110 minutes and 27 seconds in the first round last year, they were trailing 2-0 in games and down 2-0 in Game 3. The Lightning went on to get swept in that series in one of the most ignominious choke jobs in NHL history. This time had to be different. And thanks to their effort in Game 1, it was. And even though the game lasted the equivalent of 2 ½ regulation games, it was early in the proceedings that the Lightning established their identity. That was when Pierre-Luc Dubois opened the scoring for the Blue Jackets just 2:39 into the first period. “ ‘Don’t sacrifice defense for offense.’ I must have said that 100 times,” said Lightning coach John Cooper. “It’s when things go awry, a.k.a. we don’t get the first goal, are we going to go away from our game plan? And we didn’t. I think it was a good step for us.”
It was not so much that the Lightning won Game 1, it was how they won it that impressed. They took the game the Blue Jackets gave them and did not waver, even when they knew they were outplaying their opponent with nothing to show for their efforts. To play all that hockey and come up empty can be nothing but demoralizing for the Blue Jackets, who have played a lot of hockey since the qualifying round began and have had to work so hard for everything they’ve earned. They play a style of hockey that is not easy to play. It requires sacrifice and physical punishment and, even when it has almost five months off, that can wear on a team.
Building a team that can win a Stanley Cup takes a long time and there’s always that school of thought that a heavily favored team needs to take the equivalent of a kick to the pills with a pair of steel-toed boots from an underdog in order to learn what it takes to be a champion. Judging by the result of Game 1, the Lightning might just have successfully absorbed that painful lesson.
“It’s probably a little bit of mental growth, a little bit of maturity that has gone on with us,” Cooper said, “and you have to have that if you’re going to go on.”
If the Lightning stick with their game plan, they probably will move on in these playoffs. In 2019, Cooper said the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning because they were the better team over a period of a week. That was not the case in Game 1 of the first round. The Lightning were better and, because of that, they were also luckier.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.