COLUMBUS – Ryan McDonagh sat in the quiet dressing room of Tampa Bay Lightning, where his teammates spent a few moments of quiet and frustrated contemplation before leaving during the offseason.
How could this happen? How could a Lightning team that had accumulated 128 points and 62 victories, win a part of the NHL record of all time, lose in four quick games against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and a team that ended 30 points behind them?
How could a team that seemed to be destined for a Stanley Cup see it swept? How could a group that Vegas sports betting considered a minus 400 favorite before the series retired in four games?
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"It's hard to point out one thing," McDonagh said. "We hurt ourselves in many different ways, the strengths that were key to winning the regular season were not achieved in this series, they won all those categories."
What caused this historic collapse of the playoffs, marking the first time in history that the best team in the league was swept in the first round, in a series of seven games?
Here is the anatomy of the loss of the Lightnings to Columbus:
Jump forward: game 1 error | Injuries (and stupidity)
Non-special equipment | The anger of Bob
They were trained | & # 39; It was not our time & # 39;
The jackets were not eight seeds.
Before opening the body of Rayo to determine the internal causes of his disappearance, let us exalt the Columbus Blue Jackets with the praise they deserve.
This was not a seed No. 8 This was the 13th best team in the NHL based on points, with 98, a higher total than Three Western Conference playoff teams in the Dallas Stars (93), Vegas Golden Knights (93) and Colorado Avalanche (90). They were 12th in goals per game (3.12) and 11th in goals against each game (2.82), beating several playoff teams in each category. They were 12th in the expected goal percentage (50.87), which was better than six playoff teams.
They were a fully adequate team that became the biggest of the losses by virtue of Lightning's combination of a regular season, and the projections of Las Vegas sports betting houses for the series. (The Lightning had less-400 in the money line to win the series).
The collapse of Rayo in the first round of the NHL playoffs was epic. But this is still a loaded team ready to compete for the Cup in 2019-20.
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But where the experts failed was to identify two trends. First, that the Blue Jackets had been a different team since a road trip in western Canada that ended on March 24. They had a team meeting that cleared the air on some issues, and several players mentioned that they had gathered them in the right course. They won seven of eight games to close the regular season, abandoning two or fewer goals in each win. (That defeat at home 6-2 against the Bruins on April 2, in a critical game, took us all out of their essence as contenders).
The other trend is that this was the third consecutive season in which the Jackets reached the playoffs. They went out in five to the penguins in 2017, but gained experience. They won the first two games in Washington in 2018 and lost the series in six games, but they gained more experience.
"As more and more playoff hockey you play, more and more you will feel comfortable in the situations you find yourself in. It is very important that three years have gone by for us, boys have more minutes, more experience in situations. With waves, hopefully, you're ready for that, it's not new to you, "coach John Tortorella said.
So it was not new for the Jackets to start the series well on the road, and maybe they learned one or two things about how to protect the series lead on the ice at home after the last postseason.
In Game 1, Rayo tried to win 8-0 instead of 3-0
The Blue Jackets were an auction after a period of Game 1 in Tampa. They defeated 3-0, when Rayo tied a postseason franchise record for goals in the first period, and was completely outdone. This is what The Lightning did during the regular season: scoring early and often, since his 102 goals in the first period were tied with San Jose for the majority in the NHL; and win by a large margin, since 30 of his 62 wins were by three or more goals.
What they quickly discovered is that in the playoffs, opponents do not fall to the canvas after three quick hits. They stagger around and wait for some error or error to return them to the fight. That's why the unfortunate pbad of Ryan McDonagh, intercepted by the Blue Jackets and turned into a dissenting goal by Nick Foligno, was a harbinger of death.
That pinch of Erik Cernak and that McDonagh pbad are the kind of plays you do in the regular season when you think the other guys are already thinking about the next stop on their 82-game trip. When Josh Anderson takes him to Foligno, the Lightning have five guys below the top of the circles in the attack area. And then he just smokes it beyond Andrei Vasilevskiy.
From that moment, the Jackets took the game with a uniform force, in addition to a brief return to the Lightning form to begin the third period. They scored an abbreviated goal against Ray's exalted power game and a power game goal of his own.
Earlier this season, coach Jon Cooper said that to be successful in the playoffs, "we have to win the games 2-1, and not 5-4." The Lightning tried to win Game 1 by, like, 8-0. Instead, a critical error caused the Jackets to return to the fight and helped them get the first of a series of surprises.
The hangover from game 2
Lightning center Tyler Johnson said the team had a crisis of confidence during Game 1, avoiding making the plays they had throughout the season. That moved to Game 2: while Rayo had the advantage during the game in 5-to-5 shooting attempts, and played well in the first period despite having abandoned two goals, the percentage of their expected goals for the second. (42.39) and third (48.54) was indicative of his failure to carry the work. The Blue Jackets won the game, 5-1, thanks to two power play goals and a third emphatic period in which Riley Nash and Artemi Panarin scored 3:09.
Throughout the regular season, Lightning lost consecutive games once, in early November, when Vasilevskiy was injured. They thought they could enter Game 2 and get back in shape. They were wrong. By losing that three-goal lead in the Game 1 loss, he damaged his psyche in Game 2.
"You feel pretty good about yourself when you're up 3-0, and then we wrapped that up for them, the problem was that they came to Game 2. That was a bit surprising for us, they scored in the first five minutes, and we did not respond like We should, "Cooper said.
Injuries (and stupidity)
In Game 3, the Lightning were left without two of their most important players, for very different reasons.
Winner of the Norris Trophy Victor Hedman clearly was not himself in Games 1 and 2. He was negative in shooting attempts and in goal differential. Jacket defender David Savard (of all people) spun him around as a top with a critical goal of Game 1. He missed the last four games of the regular season with an upper body injury. He missed Games 3 and 4 with an undisclosed injury.
Nikita Kucherov, the NHL's top scorer with 128 points and the prohibitive favorite to win the Hart Trophy as MVP in the league, missed Game 3 while serving a one-game suspension for Markus Nutivaara's defense of the Jackets in Game 2. It was a cheap shot at a player in a prone position, delivered by frustration with Columbus skillfully ahead in the game.
Did Kucherov's loss affect Rayo? Absolutely. They found their offensive game in the third period and only had one goal. Not having Kucherov on the ice to mark or set the equalizer was critical. In that sense, he may be his most valuable player, who manifests himself in his absence. The petulant and selfish moves that lead to suspensions are not exactly what MVPs do. (Fortunately, Hart's votes were already cast for what is a regular season award, and Kucherov had a stellar one).
After Game 4, Kucherov was still trying to figure out what happened to his announced power play. "There are no power games, a PP in two games, it's hard, I do not know what to say," he murmured.
No one does it when it comes to the disparity of special teams in this series. The Lightning had a power play percentage of 28.1 in the regular season, which is the highest in NHL history for a season of 82 games and the highest overall since 1987-88. The Calgary Flames had 28.5 percent in a season of 80 games. Lightning had a power play percentage of 33.0 percent on the road, the highest since the NHL began tracking the statistics in 1977.
Against the blue jackets? His power play was 1-for-6, and finally it became Game 4. Part of the problem was not having enough of them, which was a combination of officious officials and the discipline of the Jackets: Columbus had the least amount of times in the ordinary. season.
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Meanwhile, the power game of the Blue Jackets was transformed into the Montreal Canadiens of the mid-1970s, turning the record and in constant motion. They finished 5-for-10 in the series against a Lightning penalty that ended tied for the first time in the NHL. Allowing your opponent a conversion rate of 50 percent in the power play is the subject of the sweeps.
The power game of Columbus produced the goal that won the game in Games 1 and 2. The winner of the game in Game 4 was also technically a special teams goal, scored 6 against 5 during a delayed penalty.
It can not be stressed enough: The Lightning did not play horribly at 5-on-5. The Jackets scored eight equal strength goals at Tampa's six. The Bolts had an expected goal percentage of 54.86, and 54.17 percent of the chances of scoring in four games. But those four additional goals with the man's advantage made all the difference.
"The special teams were huge for us in the season, and they left us in the playoffs, we did not get the rebounds in the death penalty, and they got confidence in the power play as the series progressed," Stamkos said.
Suffice to say that they really missed Hedman in these two units.
The Colón Collection
Last month, we published an article titled "How to Beat the Tampa Bay Ray", long before anyone considered this plausible. One section seems particularly prophetic after the Blue Jackets sweep: that a team playing an effective verification game could reduce the speed of an offensive attack.
The Washington Capitals demonstrated this last season playing a 1-1-3 trap that bounced off the Jackets, the Penguins, the Rays and the Golden Knights en route to the Stanley Cup. Columbus played a 1-2-2 system against the Lightning that effectively obstructed the neutral zone. A forward striker attempts to interrupt the Tampa Bay puck manipulator; two other forwards provide a neutral zone support to press the puck conveyor or remove pbading lanes; Get over it and the defenders of the Jackets add another layer of support in front of goalkeeper Sergei Bobrovsky.
"They've been on the top of the disc, they've taken the ice in. Our job is to find areas around it, move the disk and move our feet, do not let them get in their place so often," McDonagh said. .
Easier said than done. Until the offensive circus of Game 4, the Jackets had spent the previous eight seasons pulling the pucks of Tampa (they had 30 kills in the series) and forced the Lightning to play a game of chips and chase when entering the offensive zone.
"We fall behind and move away from our identity, which is having records," Cooper said.
When the Jackets had the puck, they handled it methodically, which is another key to defeating the Lightning: Slow down. As of March 11, the Jackets finished 26th in the NHL in rhythm. The rays were 14.
When they could pbad through the defensive front, there was another problem: Sergei Bobrovsky finally became a playoff goalkeeper.
The anger of Bob
One of the reasons why the Blue Jackets had yet to advance beyond the first round in the history of the franchise was Bobrovsky's horrible performance record in the playoffs. In 17 previous playoff games with Columbus, Bobrovsky had an average of 3.41 goals against and a saving percentage of .898. Not very good, Bob.
But in this postseason, it has been a revelation: a saving percentage of .932 and an average of 2.01 goals against. Why the improvement?
"I think we played pretty well in front of him on the road here, but in times of games where we needed great salvation, he made them," Tortorella said.
Remember Foligno's goal in game 1? That only matters because Bobrovsky made a great save in Nikita Kucherov who could have made the game 4-0. Later, he stopped. Steven Stamkos when the captain of the Bolts could have made the 4-1.
In both games at Columbus, Bobrovsky resisted every offensive streak Rayo had and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy on the ice. Vasilevskiy finished the series with a saving percentage of .856 and an average of 3.82 goals against. Among the many unpredictable facets of this disorder, the Blue Jackets that obtained a much higher number of players were the first on that list.
"I'm excited for him," Tortorella said. "He has some discomfort, and that's a very good thing for an athlete."
The lack of adversity.
One of Cooper's favorite theories about the disappearance of his Lightning is that they could not simply turn on the switch for the postseason after spending several months aimlessly.
"When you have the amount of points we had, it's a blessing and a curse, in a way, you do not play any meaningful hockey for a long time, then suddenly, you have to increase the pace, it's not an apology, it's the reality "Cooper said after Game 4." That's how it's done: you have a historic regular season and we had a historic playoff. "
(Well, yes, it was historic: for the first time in the NHL, a team with the most points in the regular season could not win a single game in a series of seven games in the first round).
Cooper's argument is that the Blue Jackets entered the playoffs after playing meaningful games during the previous three weeks, and playing them well: Columbus won seven of eight games, abandoning two or fewer goals in each of those wins. Meanwhile, the Lightning lost their confidence in Game 1 and had a losing streak that cost them their season.
"We could not find our game, it's clear, for six days in April, we could not find it," Cooper said. "It's unfortunate, because it puts a spot on what was a normal season."
Then again, Cooper was trained
On March 26, Rayo announced a contract extension for head coach Jon Cooper, perhaps with the anticipation that his shares (and the price of them) would rise when the team won the Stanley Cup.
"He is the best coach of our hockey team," said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois.
So … is that still valid?
Cooper is a brilliant coach. If Barry Trotz does not win Jack Adams for the postJohn Tavares, resurrection of the islanders, Cooper, will win it for one of the best regular seasons in the history of the NHL. But in this series against the Blue Jackets, Cooper was overtaken and overtaken by Tortorella. The Jackets were committed to their system in ways that the Lightning did not. Tactically, his defense defeated Cooper's offense, and the Lightning were slow to adapt.
He also made some outright mistakes, such as not identifying the psychological damage that the Bolts had after Game 1; not being able to remove Vasilevskiy from an additional attacker in a timely manner in Game 3; and he could not make the challenge of a coach in the first goal of the Jackets in Game 4 by the interference of the goalkeeper, although then he would challenge one successfully on the basis of the offside.
"They are small things that have not happened during the year that multiplied during this series," Cooper said, in an understatement.
The stars did not shine
The Blue Jackets obtained impact plays from impact talents. Matt Duchene had three goals and four badists. Artemi Panarin had two goals and three badists. Zach Werenski had five points, and Seth Jones had four points, both scoring a winning goal. Even the two goals from Oliver Bjorkstrand were both winners of the game, along with two badists.
The Lightning … he did not. Stamkos, who scored 45 goals in the regular season, had no points and had less than 5 games in three games. Point, who had 41 goals in the regular season, did not score to three, with a minus-2. Kucherov, who led the league with 128 points, did not score in the first two games of the series and was then suspended for Game 3.
All of them reached the Game 4 spreadsheet in an effort to avoid elimination. But the fact that the Lightning were in that position is largely a product of their lack of production earlier in the series.
& # 39; It was not our time & # 39;
Kucherov sat at his post, dazed, answering questions about Game 4. "This sucks, yes, there's not much to say," he said. "It's a playoff, there's no easy team, you have to give them credit, they fought hard, it was not our time, I guess."
This brings us to the last surgical exploration of the autopsy: that Lightning, despite all its success in the regular season and being a statistical steamroller in many ways, may not know how to win in the playoffs.
"If you do not achieve the goal of winning everything, it's a failure, we do not care what happened in the regular season, we wanted to go in and play well, in that first game, we went out and got the initial advantage, and then we could not gain any momentum. In that game, we did not defend well enough as a team, this whole series, "said Stamkos.
Then one wonders how, then, the Lightning can learn to win in the postseason. How to handle adversity How to transfer what they did best in the regular season to the postseason.
Maybe it just takes time, like it did for the Blue Jackets.
"I do not know," Cooper said. "It's funny: we're expected to go far this year and not get anywhere, in 2015, nobody expected us to go anywhere, and we went far, with the same core of players," he said. "It's hard to win in this league, it's hard not to hold the Stanley Cup at the end, but how many teams have gone through this?" They knock on the door and knock on the door and then … look, Washington, for example? remarkable years and they recovered in the second round, and the year when nobody expected them to do anything, they won the Stanley Cup. "
The changes will come for the Lightning. They have to do it, after a disaster of this magnitude. But given the core, and given the core ages, the window remains open to win.
Perhaps one day, while lifting the Cup, Rayo remembers how this defeat was a formative moment for his group. Or, perhaps, they will remember this year as what it could have been, since one of the best teams of the regular season in NHL history saw that their postseason only lasted four frustrating games.