You’re going to read a lot today about the collapse, the choke, the abject failure of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were the greatest regular season team of the post-lockout era and one of the most deep and outright dangerous outfits to take the ice in NHL history.
You can rattle off the reasons why that will be the case, too. The Bolts’ 62 regular season victories tied the all-time record. Tampa Bay compiled 128 points and flirted with that record, as well. The Lightning also boasted three 40-goal scorers, three 90-point players and 11 skaters who scored more than or within a fraction of half a point per game. They had what some will suggest was the best goaltending of any team during the regular season, and Andrei Vasilevskiy could very well step on stage to receive the Vezina Trophy come season’s end. There’s a chance that his acceptance speech will be preceded or followed shortly thereafter by coach Jon Cooper taking the stage as the winner of the Jack Adams Award as the coach of the year.
But this isn’t about the Lightning, because Tampa Bay wasn’t the only team on the ice Tuesday night when history was made and the Presidents’ Trophy winners were swept out of the first round of the post-season. Standing at the other end of an outstretched arm and shaking the hands of those who were for many the prohibitive favorites to become Stanley Cup champions were the Columbus Blue Jackets. So, on a day when much of the focus is sure to be on failure, we should make some time to champion the successes of the team that was given little hope of moving on. And that starts in goal.
It had been said entering the first round that the Blue Jackets’ best chance at defeating the Lightning rested on the shoulders of Sergei Bobrovsky, that a series-stealing, Jaroslav Halak-ian performance would be the key to Columbus’ expectedly slim post-season hopes. The concern, however, was that Bobrovsky, for his two Vezinas and remarkable regular season track record, had not proven himself a playoff performer. Not once in his career had he guided a team beyond the first round, and it was most certainly fair to put some of that blame on Bobrovsky, who sported an .891 save percentage in 24 career playoff appearances entering a matchup with the NHL’s top team.
Through 11 of the 12 periods that it took the Blue Jackets to dispose of the Lightning, though, Bobrovsky was unquestionably excellent. He posted a .932 SP across the four-game series, surrendered a mere eight goals to an offense that had scored at a near four-goal per game rate during the regular season and only five of those goals came after the first period of Game 1. In fact, removing that opening frame from the equation, a period in which Bobrovsky looked as though he was about to get swallowed whole by his playoff demons, the Blue Jackets netminder stopped 99 of 104 shots sent his way, good for a .952 SP and 1.37 goals-against average through the rest of the series.
Bobrovsky’s performance didn’t occur in a vacuum, however, and credit for the defensive performance of the Blue Jackets can and should be shared with those who insulated the crease. Columbus’ soundness defensively can be illustrated, too, by looking at the keeper’s workload, specifically the amount of high-quality opportunities the Blue Jackets allowed their netminder to face. Of the 16 starting goaltenders to appear this post-season, only Connor Hellebuyck, Tuukka Rask and, yes, Vasilevskiy saw fewer high-danger shots against, and according to NaturalStatTrick, Bobrovsky’s 1.9 expected goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was lower than all but that of Vasilevskiy and Petr Mrazek.
But there’s more to it than limiting high-danger chances. At 5-on-5, the Blue Jackets also managed to keep up with the Lightning, smothering them through the neutral zone and effectively slowing the pace against a Tampa Bay team that thrived when playing an up-tempo game. With puck pressure and a suffocating forecheck, Columbus forced turnovers – not a perfect science, but the NHL credited the Lightning with 36 giveaways in the series – and the underlying numbers support the assertion that the Blue Jackets controlled play for long stretches.
That’s especially true through the first three games, during which Columbus and Tampa Bay were near level in every major 5-on-5 category. To wit, the Blue Jackets managed 48.6 percent of the shot attempts, 50.1 percent of the shots and 48.7 percent of the scoring chances at five-a-side through the first three games. Columbus managed to trade attempts, shots and chances with Tampa Bay by effectively choking off the middle of the ice, taking away any space that would have allowed pure skill to shine through. Truly the only game in which the Lightning came alive was Game 4, when they were forced to dig out of an early hole with their playoff lives on the line. On the whole, the Bolts' Game 4 performance tilted the first-round matchup’s 5-on-5 numbers significantly in Tampa Bay’s favor, but it was far too little, far too late.
On the blueline, full marks should go to Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and David Savard, who shut down Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning’s top trio was served up a steady dose of the Blue Jackets’ top-three blueliners and the results speak for themselves. Until Stamkos and Point scored in Game 4, neither had lit the lamp in the series. While true, too, that Kucherov was forced to sit a game due to suspension, Tampa Bay’s all-star line, which combined for 318 points in the regular season, managed to hit the scoresheet just five times. That’s an incredible feather in the cap of not just the blueliners who matched up against the Lightning’s best, but all of the Blue Jackets who skated against a true powerhouse trio.
It can’t be overlooked, either, how influential special teams was on the series. Despite entering the playoffs with one of the regular season’s worst power plays – Columbus was operating at a paltry 15.4 percent with the man advantage – the Blue Jackets made the most of their opportunities, scoring power play goals in the final three games of the sweep and finishing the series with a 50 percent conversion rate. And how did Columbus go about nullifying Tampa Bay’s league-best power play? By simply not giving them the chances. The Lightning went on the man advantage six times in four games and didn’t click until Game 4. When Tampa Bay did get a chance, too, Columbus was throwing bodies in shooting lanes and generally keeping all attempts to the outside, allowing very little for the Lightning to really sink their teeth into with the extra skater. It should also be said that the net influence of the Bolts’ power play was zero, as the Blue Jackets’ short-handed goal cancels out the one power play tally the Lightning mustered.
And because of all that – Bobrovsky’s play, the stifling forecheck, overall defensive buy-in and unexpected win of the special teams battle – it’s the Blue Jackets, not the Lightning, moving on. Columbus can take today, even tomorrow, to bask in what is surely the incredibly bright afterglow of knocking off a team against whom many gave them no chance. But after that, it’s time to look ahead, potentially to a date with a bigger, better destiny. After all, the past three teams to sweep a series against the NHL’s top team have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. And after what Columbus just accomplished, why would anybody bet against the Blue Jackets?
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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