Six days in April can change a lot.
Six days ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning were champions-in-waiting. They were a 128-point team, and no team in the history of hockey had ever had more wins. Of their 62 wins, 30 had come by three or more goals. They had three 40-goal scorers and one truly historic season from Nikita Kucherov. They officially clinched a playoff spot a week into March, though had unofficially clinched the Presidents’ Trophy around, oh, Thanksgiving. They had the MVP, and the Vezina winner, and the likely runners-up for the Norris and Jack Adams. They had no flaws.
Those things are mostly all still true, but nobody will remember any of the feats except as set-up for the punchline: The 2018–19 Lightning tore ass through the NHL only to get swept in the first round.
Six days ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets were kind of a punchline. They had been a mess all season, sputtering along in post-contention, pre-rebuild limbo, just waiting for their disgruntled goalie and disgruntled star forward to leave, whether in the summer or at the trade deadline. Instead, they shockingly decided to be buyers at the deadline, mortgaging picks that would’ve helped with a rebuild in exchange for veterans, and accepting the possibility that Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin could leave them for nothing. Even after the trades the Blue Jackets sputtered along, only clinching a playoff spot on the season’s final weekend. And what did it matter anyway? This franchise had never won a playoff series in its history. And what did that matter anyway? They had to play the Tampa Bay Lightning, one of the greatest teams in the sport’s history.
Those things are mostly all still true, but right now, nobody cares. The 2018–19 Blue Jackets stumbled their way through a dysfunctional season and might’ve harmed their future with an inexplicable trade deadline strategy ... only to win their first-ever playoff series by just totally beating the Lightning’s asses.
“For six days in April,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said, “Columbus was the better team.”
That is the long and short of it, and any exegesis—and there will be much—will be at heart an attempt to understand why and how that statement could possibly be true, to understand why and how 82 games can have absolutely nothing to do with the next four.
There were halting attempts in the losing dressing room, and all had some ring of truth, though none were quite complete. Cooper blamed the Lightning’s regular-season success for a spiritual layoff from which it was too difficult to get back into gear. “You don’t play any meaningful hockey for a long time. Then all of a sudden, you have to ramp it up.” Yes, but still. Kucherov blamed the hockey gods: “Nothing was our way in the series.” Yes, but still. Steven Stamkos blamed Tampa’s suddenly mortal special teams: “Let us down in the playoffs.” Yes, but still. Ryan Callahan blamed puck luck: “A bounce here, a bounce there.” Yes, but still.
All these factors were necessary but not sufficient. It was Stamkos, visibly struggling for words, who ultimately said the truest thing of all. “If we had the answers, we would have found a way to win a game.”
They and I and probably even Columbus can’t tell you why and how it happened, but what happened is much simpler, and deeply unsexy, at least compared to discussion of fate and pressure and miracles and chokes. Columbus’s 1-2-2 forecheck is not a particularly rare defensive formation, but the Blue Jackets’ players were fully committed, and it’s uniquely suited to counter what the Lightning want to do.
The formation, which sees one forward aggressively forechecking, the other two clogging the passing lanes, and the defensemen pressing up, is designed to deny breakouts and end-to-end rushes—which is exactly how the Lightning like to attack. Columbus’s version is particularly physical, and while a conservative formation overall—it’s not designed to even worry about counterattacking—it’s aggressive in the sense that it’s the defensemen stepping up at the back to dictate the spacing of both teams, rather than giving in to what the Lightning are trying to force, which is putting that last line of defense on its heels, deeper back in its own zone, freeing up space for Tampa to move the puck around inside the blue line. Tampa wanted to use its speed to keep the defense spread out, spread thin; Columbus stayed compact and kept Lightning attacks slow and disjointed.
That’s all well and good in theory, but why didn’t it work in the regular season, when Tampa swept Columbus? “They never did that in the regular season,” Cooper said, “because they were always chasing us.”
It might, in the end, be as simple as that: in these games, the Blue Jackets scored first. In the regular season, when Columbus fell behind, they had to abandon their game plan at least a little bit, because they knew they’d need to score somehow. But in this series they scored first in three of the four games (in fact, took 2-0 leads in the final three) and were able to fully commit to the 1-2-2 forecheck. In theory, Tampa is talented enough to be able to adapt to a system that’s stymying them. In practice, they just hadn’t had a ton of practice of needing to get away from their first game plan—the curse of having been so damned dominant. Columbus, Stamkos admitted, “executed a pretty detailed game plan to slow us down and we didn’t really have a response.”
The Blue Jackets played their game and the Lightning, for whatever reasons, couldn’t and didn’t play theirs. What’s left to say after that? Well, apologies, maybe.
Tampa is contractually still in a good place. The core of the team will be back; of course, that’s pretty much the same core that’s fallen short in the past few springs. This year was supposed to be different. It was, but different in a way that wouldn’t have been plausible in a nightmare.
And Columbus? I don’t doubt I’m going to hear from grumpy fans asking why so much text is being devoted to the series losers and so little to the winners. But there’ll be more chances to write about the Blue Jackets this spring. Because they won a playoff series and are moving on.