The impossible has happened. If you predicted the Tampa Bay Lightning would lose in the first round, you’re probably a fan of the Columbus Blue Jackets or an agent of chaos. If you predicted the Blue Jackets would sweep the top-seeded team in the league, which tied the record for most wins in a season, you were trolling.
Yet here we are, with the Lightning in a state of shock and the Blue Jackets elated, looking like a championship caliber team. So what went wrong here?
Clearly one thing that nearly everyone overlooked, myself included, was that the Blue Jackets were significantly better after their trade deadline acquisitions once those players started to fit into the team structure. There just wasn’t enough time in the regular season to get a real grip on what the Blue Jackets would look like once they gelled as a team.
It was easy to see Columbus struggling a bit after the deadline and think there wasn’t enough time for them to pull it all together. But when you’re wrong you have to own it, and the Blue Jackets have proven a lot of people wrong, so let’s get into how they did it.
Looking at the offence each team produced in the series at 5-on-5, it doesn’t look like the kind of domination that would produce a 19-8 goal differential over a four-game stretch. In fact, the Lightning had slight advantages in high danger chances and scoring chances on net, produced far more passes to the slot, got more puck movement off the rush, and more East-West puck movement.
Part of the reason for that is they were playing from behind for a majority of the series and pushing in desperation, but based on those statistics you would expect to get rewarded a little more if the series went longer, but that isn’t how the playoffs work.
Sergei Bobrovsky’s brilliance was staggering as the Blue Jackets closed down the series in Game 4, especially his performance against the ridiculous number of chances the Lightning were able to generate off the cycle.
To the Jackets’ credit, one area they were able to outdo the Lightning was attacking off the rush. The Lightning created a lot of rushes, and moved the puck well on them, but they couldn’t get their shots off once they gained the zone and the shots they did get off were mostly from the perimeter.
Any series that ends in a sweep is going to, in large part, be due to the losing team facing a phenomenal goaltending performance. But let’s try to go deeper and find some areas where the Blue Jackets’ skaters forced the issue in this series by comparing the Lightning in the playoffs to the Lightning of the regular season.
One of the big narratives in this series was that the relentless Blue Jackets forecheck drove the flow of it and forced the Lightning to dump the puck out more often than they wanted, stopped attempted zone exits, stifled their transition game, and created defensive zone and neutral zone turnovers. By the eye test I would say that is a strong group of assumptions and fits with what I saw while watching this series, but we don’t have to assume anything, because luckily, those are all things we can at least partially quantify.
For all of these stats, the lower the percentage, the better, and once again it doesn’t look like the results match up to what was happening in the series.
There were absolutely instances where the Blue Jackets’ forecheck beat down the Lightning and hemmed them in, but our brains are trained to find patterns, and when we think or are told that something is happening, they work to confirm those assumptions by finding those patterns, sometimes when they aren’t really there.
That means when the Blue Jackets did execute excellent forechecking plays, we logged them and remembered them, whereas when the Lightning weathered the incoming forwards and exited the defensive zone with the puck under their control, we don’t remember it.
Because of those cognitive biases, when Lightning coach Jon Cooper was interviewed on the bench during Game 4 and said he felt that his team was handling it well, he wasn’t completely crazy. It’s just that the few times they didn’t handle it well, Columbus managed to pounce on Tampa hard and add to their lead or break a tie.
There were areas where the Blue Jackets’ defensive scheme legitimately foiled the Lightning, though. For example, the Lightning were the fourth-best team in the regular season at following up a controlled exit with another successful play, whether that was a neutral zone deke, a pass, or carrying the puck across another line. But in the playoffs they were the third-least successful. The Blue Jackets executed a near-perfect neutral zone choke hold on the Lightning that bottled them into attacking lanes they didn’t want to take, and forced more time wasting regroups and resets.
In the defensive zone, the Lightning were forced to compensate for the increased pressure of the Blue Jackets’ forecheck by passing laterally more often, kicking the puck between two defencemen while trying to find an outlet path. 40.2 per cent of all Tampa Bay’s passes in their own zone in the playoffs were D to D lateral passes, the most in the playoffs and far more than the 35.1 per cent they went for in the regular season.
The fact of the matter is there’s no easy answer to why the Lightning were booted so quickly. Losing Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman surely made things a lot more difficult in all three zones, but even with the injuries, the Lightning weren’t vastly outplayed, despite how it looked.