Bolts on the Brink of Elimination
Watching the Lightning in this series is like watching a movie you’ve seen countless times, but while the beginning is the same, the middle and end are dramatically different. The characters have the same names and their appearance is identical, but how they act makes them seem like imposters. The plot goes haywire. Like if Citizen Kane became a violent action movie. This is the best analogy I can think of to describe the profound weirdness of watching the Lightning from the second period of Game 1 onward. A skater looks like Steven Stamkos, but an impersonator seems to be playing in his stead.
One element of this series that has been particularly devastating is the foreshadowing of doom. Less than a minute before the Matt Duchene goal that put Columbus up 1-0 last night, the Lightning—who have struggled all series to disrupt the Blue Jackets’ breakout and create turnovers off their forecheck—caught a break. Anthony Cirelli won a faceoff in the neutral zone, Braydon Coburn heaved the puck into the offensive zone for the dump-in, and as the puck bounced out from behind the net, it skipped over Dean Kukan’s stick right onto J.T. Miller’s blade.
The Lightning offensive zone time had been spent mostly on the perimeter up until this moment, so having a puck served up a few feet below the dot in the offensive zone was a gift. And due to the suddenness of the turnover, the Lightning had the shooting lane open as the Blue Jackets were scrambling and out of their defensive posture. Even more fortuitous, Alex Killorn was on the doorstep, ready to pounce on a rebound when Miller put it on net.
But Miller never put the puck on net. Instead of testing Sergei Bobrovsky from the right side of the slot and letting Killorn shovel in the rebound, Miller decided to move the puck toward Cirelli, which is the only spot where the off-kilter Blue Jackets were in position to make a play. Cirelli was sandwiched between Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky, so Miller would have to thread the puck through two Columbus skaters. Unsurprisingly, the pass failed and the chance dissipated.
Forty-five seconds later, as the Steven Stamkos line was trying to exit their zone, Mathieu Joseph committed a turnover. Two Blue Jackets forwards—Cam Atkinson and Ryan Dzingel—tried to direct the puck on net, and finally Zach Werenski found a shooting lane. Duchene scooped up the rebound on his backhand and put it into the back of the net.
These sequences, taking place over a one-minute span, encapsulate the series. Even when struck with a bad bounce, the Blue Jackets rush to take away the passing lanes and box out. Conversely, the Lightning defensive-zone coverage has been a mess. Gourde gave a weak effort to get in the shooting lane of the Werenski shot, and Stamkos was late to close on Duchene on the back door. Moreover, the reason for the big rebound was that Dan Girardi was unable to box out Atkinson in front of the net. Turnovers on the breakout are inevitable, but the Blue Jackets have succeeded at getting in shooting lanes, stuck to their defensive assignments, denied any separation, and boxed out. The Lightning have not.
One could argue that the Miller blunder wasn’t the most overt form of foreshadowing in the game. That should go to Ryan Callahan, whose Interference penalty was so blatant he forced the whistle-shy refs to make a call. The Lightning’s lack of discipline had felled them in Games 1 and 2, so it is fitting that it would prove their downfall in Game 3 also, as Columbus never even provided the Lightning with a power play opportunity.
Absurdly, Callahan would get the first shift for the Lightning after his foolish play put the Lightning in a hole they were unable to climb out of. It would be one thing if Callahan had scored 40 goals this season, but he was a healthy scratch for the first two playoff games. And that bizarre decision segues nicely into the Cooper criticism portion of this article.
Why did the fourth line play so much? Cedric Paquette played more at even strength than Alex Killorn. Ryan Callahan and Paquette played more than Yanni Gourde. I know Stamkos was invisible, but he also scored over 40 goals this year and was second on the team in points. How does he get less than 16 minutes of ice time? And considering Brayden Point was the most dangerous player on the ice for the Lightning, I am positive he should have played more than 19 minutes and forty seconds. Cirelli also should have seen more than 20 minutes. If losing Game 3 all but assures elimination, how are the most dangerous players not getting double-shifted? Why isn’t Cooper experimenting with Frankenstein lines like Stamkos-Cirelli-Point or Cirelli-Point-Miller?
The criticism of Cooper is two-fold: His players have been slower, less disciplined, and less focused for seven of the nine periods of this series. Were they tired or were they not giving effort? Either way, Cooper is culpable. Compounding the woozy ennui has been the lack of adjustments. Cooper treated Game 3 like a regular season game. He rolled his lines and played his fourth line like it was just another contest in March. He never stressed that his team simplify their game until it was too late. There were far too many east-west passes and not enough north-south attempts. There were far too many shooting opportunities ignored from the off-slot.
Something that the Lightning have never fully grasped in this series is that whacking pucks on net from all angles is a way to destabilize the Blue Jackets’ breakout. Columbus was very comfortable retrieving the Lightning’s dump-ins and exiting the zone. They also did a nice job of taking away the middle of the ice, and they eliminated the shooting lanes on the cycle when the puck was passed to the Tampa Bay defensemen. But a shot from the off-slot adds unpredictability. The defense is not sure where the rebound may bounce, and it forces opposing players off the puck to keep pace with where their man is cutting or retreating to. (If you don’t think that is difficult, ask Stamkos, who lost Duchene on the first goal.)
Shooting the puck from acute angles also makes it more difficult for opposing defensemen to pass or skate the puck out of the zone. The precision that morphs from a structured breakout gives the retrieving defensemen a decision-tree. That suite of options is eliminated off a shot attempt on net. Suddenly it becomes about survival. A shot attempt from the off-slot provides potential rebound chances in the slot, which is an area of the ice the Lightning were experiencing great difficulty passing or skating to.
If there’s ever been a forward who needs the virtue of shooting from the off-slot hammered into him it is Point. Point is the unique player on the Lightning who can access any area of the ice he wants and carry the puck in on the entry with ease. Yet, he has rarely shot from the off-slot in this series. He consistently uses the Lightning defensemen as the first option, which has allowed the Blue Jackets to pack the shooting lane in the middle and clear out the Lightning forwards so Bobrovsky has a clear sight line. But it wasn’t just Point on the rush. The Point and Stamkos lines were always eager to funnel the puck toward their defensemen, which was especially strange last night because Victor Hedman wasn’t even on the ice.
It is easy to extend a withering critique of what the Lightning did wrong, or how Cooper screwed up, but from the second period of Game 1 onward the Blue Jackets have been the far superior team. They have been faster, more tenacious in all three zones, and far more disciplined. And the velocity at which they have moved the puck has been truly impressive. Their defensive first pair is as good as any in the playoffs, and their depth is such that Atkinson can play less than Alexandre Texier, and Dzingel can play ten minutes, by far the least on the team, and that works. The Lightning aren’t just choking. The Blue Jackets are deserving of their three-game lead.