In one of the NHL’s best underdog stories in recent memory, the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference (Columbus Blue Jackets) SWEPT (yes, swept) the President’s Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning, who tied the all-time NHL record for most wins in a season at 62. With 30 points separating these two teams in the regular season, this series marked one of the largest point differential upsets in NHL playoff history.
Not once all season did Tampa Bay lose more than 2 games in a row, but here we are, absolutely stunned at the outcome of this series.
We at Clappercast, admittedly, gave the Blue Jackets no chance at winning (seen in our Playoff Preview), so we are openly not suddenly jumping ship and acting like we saw this coming.
But, that doesn’t mean we can’t reflect on what has happened to try and dissect what went oh so well for the Blue Jackets (and what in the world happened for the Lightning).
So, after watching this series and looking for an explanation, here are 7 reasons why the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning.
1) Columbus is Built for the Playoffs
I want to start out praising Columbus for their play in this series because it deserves commendation (rather than spending the whole time discussing why Tampa Bay lost).
We hockey fans know exactly what someone says when they refer to ‘playoff hockey’. It’s the heavy, physical, defensive, and win-at-all-costs play style that puts fans on the edge of their seats. Most importantly, it differs significantly from the regular season and GM’s must have the foresight to build a roster that will succeed in both.
The roster iced by the Blue Jackets may not have the most flashy or high-powered offense in the league (no disrespect to guys like Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene) but the team does excel with their physical presence. It is not necessarily their ability to throw bone crushing hits, but the grit and grind of always being physically engaged and racking up smaller hits.
This team plays gritty and heavy, and even the smaller forwards do not shy away from physicality. That quality goes a long way to ensuring success in the playoffs.
Columbus’ coach John Tortorella is widely known for his tough, imposing presence on his teams. He pushes players hard and demands 100% effort, sacrifice, and commitment. He is also known for strongly encouraging players to block shots and sacrifice their bodies. Say what you will about his tactics and styles, these are all qualities that are strongly associated with success in playoff hockey.
Moving into how Columbus utilizes their players we notice that the team plays a solid trap and shutdown game. Teams who succeed in the playoffs often fall back to the trap (one example is watching the Capitals trap their way to the Cup last season, even outtrapping the revolutionary aggressive trap the Vegas Golden Knights utilize).
Columbus’ roster composition, coach, strategy, and playstyle all transition well to playoff success. One more thing, have I said trap enough in this paragraph?
2) Columbus’ Leadership
One of the strongest parts of the Blue Jackets’ roster that stood out to us from this series was the leadership shown by captain Nick Foligno. The perfect example comes from the aftermath of the incident that led to Nikita Kucherov being suspended for Game 3.
What you will see here is Foligno (#71) finding himself directly beside the hit and immediately going after Kucherov to stand up for his teammate. Generally, any hockey player, captain, or tough guy is going to do just that in this situation. But, it has to feel good for the other members of the Blue Jackets when your captain is right there standing up for Nutivaara.
Another crucial moment for Columbus’ leadership came back in Game 1 when down 3-0 after the first period. About halfway through the second, Foligno scored the opening goal for the Blue Jackets. Anyone could have scored it, but the captain did and you know damn well that he was absolutely jacked up on the bench after that. This energy is contagious, and as Nick spread it to his other teammates, it gave the Blue Jackets the confidence to get back into the game.
Nick Foligno’s leadership, which is apparent on the ice, is the stuff that builds a close-knit group and develops the type of camaraderie that a team can bring itself together around to accomplish that age-old teamwork ideal of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.
3) Sergei Bobrovsky Finally Stepped Up in the Playoffs
This has been the main criticism of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for years. Atrocious playoff performance. His career regular season statline boasts a .919 SV% and a 2.46 GAA. But, those numbers take a nosedive in the playoffs to an .897 SV% and 3.26 GAA (including this year so far). Those are not numbers of a goalie that is going to take a team deep into the playoffs.
So far this year, Bobrovsky is rocking a .932 SV% and 2.01 GAA. Much better.
4) Tampa Bay is not Built for the Playoffs
Contrary to the composition of Columbus’ roster is how Tampa Bay’s is built. Yes they have a collection of amazing hockey players, but as we’ve mentioned in our podcast, the Lightning are built like an all-star team. They’re flashy, dominant, dangerous, and full of scoring talent top to bottom, but they’re missing the key elements of grit and physicality that become necessities in the playoffs. This does not bode well for them trying to translate their game to the postseason.
Sometimes, it can work if they overpower and overwhelm the opponent off the back of hot goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy. But generally speaking, playoff hockey does not favour teams who cannot grind, push, and shove their way to victory.
5) Jon Cooper (and the Bolts’ Roster) Failed to Adjust their Style for the Playoffs
Watching the games, this was readily apparent by the end. Tampa Bay, for all of their offensive talent and pedigree, could barely break through the defense set by the Blue Jackets. More praise to Columbus here, as they successfully shut down one of the best offensive teams we have seen in decades.
But, it is also telling that this elite roster and successful coach could not adapt when what they were doing was clearly not working. After failing on zone entry after zone entry after zone entry, the team just did not switch things up to get past the Blue Jackets’ defense.
The Lightning played right into the Blue Jackets’ trap.
6) Tampa’s Leaders let Emotions get the Best of Them
Bringing up the Kucherov suspension again as it is telling and an important moment in this series. Tampa Bay’s key players and leaders (looking primarily at Stamkos and Kucherov here) got frustrated and responded by, quite frankly, getting pissy towards the Blue Jackets. Kucherov is not a dirty player, but in Game 3 he trips and then targets the head of the defenceless player against the boards, earning a suspension. He would not normally do this but the emotions of the series and what was happening on the ice clearly got to him.
Same goes for Stamkos. He isn’t dirty at all. But in Game 3, he too let his anger and frustration out in a questionable way.
This is not a good example for a team’s leaders to set in a playoff series. Especially when the opposing team is led by a leadership core featuring the aforementioned Nick Foligno.
7) Tampa Bay Hadn’t Played a Meaningful Game in Months
Tampa Bay had basically clinched a playoff spot, the division, and the President’s Trophy before most other teams had even clinched a playoff spot. They had not played meaningful hockey since the first half of the season, when they really broke away from the rest of the pack. They were still playing for the best season of all-time records, but that is nothing compared to the dedication and commitment it takes for a team playing for their lives game in, game out.
Columbus did not clinch their playoff spot until the last couple games of the season, and even with 6 or 7 games remaining it was still uncertain if they would even be able to make it. The Blue Jackets were playing hard for a long time to get where they were, and that energy, momentum, and confidence that they built up helped them charge into the playoffs and overwhelm the Lightning.
Regardless of why it happened, we hockey fans have just witnessed one of the most exciting series’ in years, and it is setting up one hell of a story for the rest of the playoffs. Now it’s time to sit back and enjoy the ride!