Lightning’s embarrassing 2019 sweep sparked changes paying off in rematch

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 27 saves to help the Lightning beat the Blue Jackets in Game 4 and take a commanding 3-1 series lead.

TORONTO — At this time last year, Victor Hedman was in the north of Sweden doing daily 13-kilometre hikes at altitude on Åreskutan.

It’s something he and his wife, Sanna, try to do every off-season during the week where his training schedule calls for lower-volume workouts. They’ll spend a few nights sleeping in a tent if the weather is good enough, or stay in a cabin if not, and do something most of us would classify as high-volume work just for fun.

Hedman’s hiking week was bisected by the NHL’s European media tour last summer, so on Aug. 15 he journeyed down from the mountain for a few hours. When we met in the lobby of the Sheraton Stockholm that afternoon, the first thing he said was: “Too long of a summer.”

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The wounds inflicted during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets were still being nursed at that point. That first-round loss rearranged the usual schedule for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning who’d grown accustomed to long playoff runs and had every reason to believe they’d play for a Stanley Cup following a historic 62-win regular season.

They were as stunned as most observers when Columbus dropped them with a left hook.

“They played physical, they played hard, they got the lead early in games and they played very simple. Simple hockey,” Hedman said then of the Blue Jackets. “We tried to make that extra pass sometimes. They were the better team and we don’t point any fingers other than at ourselves.

“Huge disappointment, but you learn something from that and take it with us.”

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The hard lessons have helped give the Lightning three opportunities to avenge last year’s nightmare. They were absorbed by returning players like Hedman, who aren’t forcing plays and getting frustrated by the relentless Blue Jackets to anywhere near the same degree while grinding through a series where the scores have been 3-2, 3-1, 3-2 and 2-1.

And they were also internalized by a front office that rearranged its bottom-six forward group in response to what it saw. Julien BriseBois signed Patrick Maroon as a free agent and saved his boldest gambits for the trade deadline — bringing in Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow in separate February trades that cost him two future first-round picks and prospect Nolan Foote, a former first-round selection.

“We needed to be harder to play against,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Monday’s 2-1 victory over Columbus that put Tampa ahead 3-1 in the first-round series.

“Harder years ago used to mean physical, fighting, big, strong and now today it means compete, speed and kind of in-your-face hockey. We needed those type of guys. They were circled on the list.”

Coleman and Goodrow have found a home on Yanni Gourde’s wings and together those three players are the only three tilting the ice against Columbus more than Hedman, the perennial Norris Trophy candidate.

That lunch pail third line has generated more than 70 per cent of the shot attempts and 75 per cent of the expected goals while on the ice at 5-on-5 in this series. On Monday, it produced goals by Goodrow and Gourde less than four minutes apart early in the second period and that was all Tampa needed to grind out a victory.

No matter how much high-end skill you have, those kinds of contributions are usually needed to keep things on track when games tighten up in the playoffs. And they were missing from last year’s supernova squad who, according to former Lightning forward Ryan Callahan, was a little too reliant on talent for their own good.

“I think there’s a fine balance,” Callahan said earlier this month. “In playing against the Columbus team, I thought we could have used more of that [heavy hockey] last year just to try to break ‘em down a little bit.”

The right mix makes the Lightning even scarier because they have a little bit of everything. Scoring stars like Brayden Point, who notched the quintiple-overtime winner in Game 1, and Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov — not to mention injured captain Steven Stamkos. A 200-foot star in Anthony Cirelli. A rock-solid goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Then there’s Hedman, who has logged more minutes than any Tampa player in the series (129:52) and driven play significantly. With him on the ice at 5-on-5 the Lightning are enjoying a sizeable edge in attempts (136-69), expected goals (4.95-2.27) and high-danger chances (25-10).

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Now based at Hotel X inside the Toronto bubble, the workhorse defenceman has come a long way in a calendar year. Put it this way, there will be no hiking adventure on the agenda this August.

“Every summer I try to find time. Once a summer I have a recovery week,” Hedman explained during the media tour. “Everything up north is beautiful.”

His best hope for this summer is that the chase for a Stanley Cup eventually takes him and the Lightning north to Edmonton.

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