Never has an NHL team had more reason to be embarrassed. First period of Game 1 aside, the Tampa Bay Lightning who won 62 games in the regular season failed to show up in their first-round series against the tremendously underestimated Columbus Blue Jackets, and they paid the price. As the Lightning’s biggest stars either struggled to make an impact or actively harmed their team’s chances at winning, their opponents grabbed a hardware store’s worth of brooms and swept Tampa out of the postseason. Tonight Columbus completed perhaps the biggest upset in NHL playoff history by winning Game 4, 7-3, to advance to the second round.
That final score is brutal and humiliating, but it doesn’t really explain the true nature of the game. Toward the end of the opening period, for the first time since their 3-0 lead early in Game 1, the Lightning had something positive happen to them. The Blue Jackets jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in Game 4's first four minutes, and later on in the opening period, they almost made it 3-1 on a Cam Atkinson goal. However, the call was reversed on an offsides challenge because the puck just barely left the attacking zone, and that brought the game back to a more manageable 2-1 Tampa Bay hole.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper—certainly not the “emotional one” out of him and Columbus HC John Tortorella—was massively pumped up after the goal was disallowed. “Here’s our fucking chance!” he said to his players. It looked like it could be the kick Tampa needed to get out of a funk.
Thanks to a Brayden Point powerplay goal with two minutes remaining in the second period—his first point of the playoffs—the Bolts tied the game at three, and managed to quell a Columbus crowd that had come to celebrate their team’s first-ever playoff series victory.
There’s an alternate universe where the series turns on this moment, and the Lightning power through for the Game 4 win, finally make use of their superior talent, and become the first team since 2014 to battle back from a 3-0 series deficit. That didn’t happen. Instead, Oliver Bjorkstrand scored less than a minute later to snuff out all the Lightning’s confidence, and then Jackets piled on a few empty-netters in the late third period to seal the upset.
While Columbus celebrates an incredible accomplishment and stays alive in the playoffs, Cooper will get to think about how badly it got away from his team. Nikita Kucherov, who had the best regular season of his life with 128 total points, will get to think about how he finished the playoffs with more suspensions than goals. The Lightning will get to think about how they’re the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to ever be swept in the first round.
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