“We come to it at last - the great battle of our time.”
After posting a fifth place finish the Metropolitan Division during the 2018-19 regular season, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who won more games than all but five teams in the NHL this season, began their playoff push Tuesday night in the second wild card position as they visited the Tampa Bay Lightning in game one of their best-of-seven series.
The Lightning, President’s Trophy winners with the best record in the NHL over the course of the regular season, romped through the NHL en route to 62 wins (tying the NHL single-season record), including a 32-7-2 record at Amalie Arena. Led by Nikita Kucherov’s 128 points, the Lightning broke numerous scoring records over the course of the season.
With the playoffs beginning, however, none of that matters. Being the first team to 16 wins is all that matters.
Despite an 0-3-0 record against the Lightning in the regular season (while being outscored 17-3 in the process), Columbus boasts one of the better road records in the NHL and playmakers throughout the roster. Artemi Panarin broke the franchise record for points in a single season with 85; Cam Atkinson tied the franchise record for goals scored in a single season with 41; and Sergei Bobrovsky led the NHL with nine shutouts.
Alexandre Texier remained in the lineup on the new look third line with Nick Foligno and Oliver Bjorkstrand to start the game. Boone Jenner dropped to the fourth line, and Alex Wennberg remained out of the lineup. Sergei Bobrovsky got the start in net opposite Andre Vasilevskiy as both teams looked to start fast in the series. Here’s what happened.
The Jackets started on the front foot with a strong clearance from the defensive zone before Cam Atkinson faced a save and hold from Vasilevskiy for the first shot of the game. A turnover in the defensive zone to Steven Stamkos saw a look at Bobrovsky, but Seth Jones was able to deflect the puck wide before it ever saw the Columbus net. As the first penalty was called, Brandon Dubinsky dropped the gloves and went after Dan Girardi after a post-whistle hit from Girardi. After the scrum, Dubinsky and Girardi went to the box for roughing, while Girardi earned a second minor for an illegal check to the head, giving Columbus the first power play of the game.
Of note on strategy - the instant the fourth line came onto the ice, the Lightning changed and put their first line on the ice.
On a turnover from Seth Jones at the blue line, Tampa made Columbus pay. Jones missed the pass and Alex Killorn had a breakaway and beat Sergei Bobrovsky high glove side on the first Lightning shot of the game.
Lightning goal (0-1): Killorn, unassisted, 4:12 (SH)
Tampa killed the rest of the penalty with no trouble. Columbus had one shot, Tampa had one goal. The Lightning, tied for third in the NHL with 12 shorthanded goals on the season, made the Jackets pay for sloppy play. Columbus appeared content to get into a track meet with Tampa early, a frantic pace to the game but no defensive discipline from the Jackets. The Jackets needed the first television timeout to hopefully settle down and get a foot into the game without skating around chasing the Lightning.
Columbus’ fourth line held possession in the Lightning zone for an extended shift out of the timeout, forcing a strong blocker save from Vasilevskiy. After the second TV timeout, Tampa made Columbus pay for a failed clearance. A mistake from Ryan Dzingel, who failed to clear the puck, saw the puck bounce to Erik Cernak. Cernak let a shot fly at Bobrovsky who failed to control the rebound and it bounced right to Anthony Cirelli, who made no mistake burying it.
Lightning goal (2-0): Cirelli from Cernak and Miller, 11:01
Columbus struggled again to clear the puck from their own zone, forcing Seth Jones to ice it with 6:53 remaining. Markus Nutivaara saved a third goal with 5:20 remaining as a shot from the point trickled through Sergei Bobrovsky but Nutivaara swept it away from the blue paint. A huge moment for the Finnish youngster. On a turnover, Alex Texier saw his shot turned aside by Vasilevskiy with 4:17 remaining in the first period.
Sergei Bobrovsky saw a shot with 2:30 remaining and again failed to control the puck with his glove - a terrible start to the game for Bobrovsky. With Panarin failing to control the puck, the puck went to Mikhail Sergachev and was deflected by Yanni Gourde in front and into the net.
Lightning goal (0-3): Gourde from Sergachev and Ruuta, 2:10
To add insult to injury, David Savard took an interference penalty with 32.8 seconds remaining in the period, giving the best power play in the game a chance to make it 4-0.
Tampa dominated the second half of the period to take a 3-0 lead into the first intermission. Tampa also led in shots 13-6.
Columbus at least got to intermission without giving up a power play goal. Small victories.
The Lightning opened the period with 1:28 of penalty time to kill. On a cross ice pass, Ondrej Palat found Stamkos who found a streaking Kucherov, but Bobrovsky made his first big save of the game to keep the deficit at three. Columbus managed to kill the penalty after Nikita Kucherov hit the post as well on the power play.
The line blender kicked in hard after the penalty ended. The new line of Dzingel-Duchene-Atkinson had a solid shift in the Lightning zone with clean passing, forcing a big scramble in front of Vasilevskiy. Bjorkstrand moved up to play with Panarin and Dubois. Panarin walked through the Tampa defense but fired wide of the net with four minutes gone in the period.
Columbus managed to slow the game down, making simple passes tape to tape while playing stout in the neutral zone - the strategy they should have employed to start the game, and it helped them to get a foot back into the game. Unfortunately, they could not find a way to beat Vasilevskiy.
After a bad pass from Ryan McDonagh, Nick Foligno grabbed the puck on a breakaway and buried his sevent playoff goal at 9:15.
Blue Jackets goal (1-3): Foligno, unassisted, 9:15
After the second TV timeout, Panarin had a break of his own, but was denied by Vasilevskiy. Columbus found their footing in the second period and got back to playing Blue Jackets hockey, forcing Tampa to play defense while not allowing the Lightning to get out in transition. A turnover from Kucherov saw a Dubinsky effort get deflected wide of the net with seven minutes to go in the period.
Matt Duchene forced a kick save from Vasilevskiy that went to the far post, but Columbus had no one there to take advantage of the rebound and a gaping net with 5:00 remaining in the period. The fourth line, with under three minutes to go, forced another solid shift for the visitors and another scrum broke out behind Vasilevskiy after Jenner bumped the Lightning goaltender.
As the second period drew to a close, the Lightning forced several anxious moments in front of Bobrovsky as Killorn and Cirelli were denied by the Columbus netminder. The period ended with Columbus trailing 3-1 on the scoreboard and 22-17 on the shot counter.
Columbus opened the first period by attacking the Lightning - Dubois saw a shot saved from the short side and a puck was loose in front of Vasilevskiy, but no one was home to bury it. Sergei Bobrovsky made a save on Steven Stamkos with just over two minutes gone in the third period as he stared down Stamkos and Kucherov after a long feed to Kucherov split the pairing of Scott Harrington and Dean Kukan.
Brandon Dubinsky took a David Savard shot low in the ankle at the 4 minute mark and was in difficulty getting to the bench.
The Jackets got sloppy with the puck as the Lightning turned up the pressure as the first five minutes elapsed in the third period. The Lightning were able to take advantage of several Jackets turnovers and start odd man rushes up the ice, but the defense and Sergei Bobrovsky were able to keep the deficit at two as the teams hit the first TV timeout of the third period with 13:53 remaining.
Victor Hedman fired a shot wide of an extremely screened Sergei Bobrovsky with 12:30 game. On the ensuing rush, David Savard of all people (!) jumped on a turnover to beat Hedman and Vasilevskiy and cut the deficit to one with his first playoff goal with 7:56 gone in the first.
Blue Jackets goal: Savard, unassisted, 7:56
Stamkos immediately missed a shot all alone in front of Bobrovsky on the ensuing faceoff. With 10:37 gone, Cedric Paquette was hit with a high stick from Brandon Dubinsky who took a double minor. Absolutely the worst thing that could happen after cutting the deficit to one goal. It was an absolutely unnecessary play from a player who should know better.
Kucherov was denied on the power play with 9:42 remaining from the slot - a dangerous shot by the best player in the NHL this season. Columbus managed to kill the first of two minors for the Lighting.
As Columbus worked to kill the penalty, Josh Anderson carried the puck up the ice short handed. David Savard caused a distraction and Anderson was able to beat Vasilevskiy short handed and tie the game.
Blue Jackets goal: Anderson from Jenner, 11:54
Two goals on seven shots in the third period for Columbus.
With 1:07 remaining in the Bolts power play, Alex Killorn hit Nick Foligno with a high stick to nullify the Lightning power play and give the teams some four on four action.
Columbus took their second power play of the night and BURIED THE GO AHEAD GOAL. Seth Jones and Matt Duchene won a battle for the puck and the puck worked its way to Seth Jones who beat Vasilevskiy with 5:55 remaining. A GO AHEAD POWER PLAY GOAL, WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE.
Blue Jackets goal (4-3): Jones from Panarin and Werenski, 14:05
Columbus, finally in the lead, needed to continue playing their game to see it out. As the clock ticked under four minutes to go, Columbus appeared content to see the puck out of the zone and keep Tampa occupied 200 feet away from Sergei Bobrovsky. It worked as the clock continued to wind down. With 3:01 remaining, the teams hit the final TV timeout of the third period.
What a beauty. Is this really happening? pic.twitter.com/QYOfYv0l9M— x-The Cannon (@cbjcannon) April 11, 2019
The clock continued to run as the Jackets worked to keep Tampa hemmed into their defensive zone. The Jackets smothered the Lightning with their back check and were efficient clearing the puck. Vasilevskiy left the net with 1:38 remaining. Dubois had to settle a rolling puck and saw his shot blocked by JT Miller as a result. Bjorkstrand iced the puck with sixty seconds remaining.
David Savard lifted the puck high and wide with 36.2 seconds remaining and the puck went for an icing as a result. The Lightning sent the puck down into their defensive zone and, as the clock expired, Columbus took a 1-0 lead in their best of seven series.
Columbus Blue Jackets 4 Tampa Bay Lightning 3
Inability to clear the zone. Bob cannot control rebounds or glove pucks. Lack of defensive coverage and communication. No simple passes from tape to tape, instead flipping it into the defensive zone and hoping for a break/mistake. Inability to clear the zone. No composure or communication on the puck. The first period could not have been worse for Columbus if Tampa Bay had drawn it up themselves.
Columbus needs to stop trying to hit faster teams. It doesn’t work. It got them killed against Pittsburgh and killed against the Lightning. Their best shifts involved cycling the puck below Vasilevskiy and looking for their shots off the circle. Instead, the Jackets spent too much time early hitting and not looking for simple passes and were made to pay, repeatedly.
The second period is how Columbus is going to have to play to win games in this series. They cannot give the puck away, cannot chase hits - they must focus on cycling the puck, smart passes. That’s how Columbus is going to stay with the Lightning. Trying to get into a track meet or a transition game with the President’s Trophy winners is asking for misery and pain.
Checking - the stick check and forecheck - got Columbus back into the game. Smart deflections against this quick team, especially in the neutral and defensive zones, is critical going forward. It is critically important that Columbus utilizes active sticks in game two of the series to help slow down this potent Lightning offense.
The Cirelli line was fantastic for Tampa Bay in game one. Multiple goals, rebound chances, and consistent offensive pressure for that line every time they took the ice. You have to wonder if Columbus looks to match up a solid defensive line (featuring possibly Alex Wennberg?) against them in game two.
This is the first time Tampa Bay has blown a three goal lead all season.
The Matt Duchene line was HUGE tonight. Matched up with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov for much of the evening, Duchene/Dzingel/Atkinson each had monster games that, while not resulting in points, neutralized two 40 goal scorers. Duchene also made a huge play on the game winning goal, winning a battle and finding Zach Werenski, which led to the play that gave Jones the game winner.
Tonight was one hell of a hell of a coaching job by Torts. He pushed all of the right buttons, juggled the lines properly, and got the boys in the right position to win this game. This game doesn’t happen without Torts.
This is the second regulation playoff win in franchise history, and the first on the road.
Columbus leads their series with Tampa 1-0. Game Two between these two teams will happen Friday night in Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay. Face-off is scheduled for 7:00 PM EST.
Stay tuned to The Cannon for full coverage of the series!