TORONTO — This was more than your typical first-round series win. The Tampa Bay Lightning dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets in five tightly contested games, but they also discarded some sizable baggage from its travelling party in the process.
There was an emotional intermission speech from Kevin Shattenkirk during Wednesday’s come-from-behind 5-4 victory in overtime. There was an emotional celebration in the corner of Scotiabank Arena following Brayden Point’s winner. And there was the lasting image of head coach Jon Cooper pumping his fist after making his way through the handshake line.
“Well we had 422 days to think about it, but who’s counting?” said Cooper, raising the spectre of last year’s sweep by the Blue Jackets that had haunted his team ever since.
This series ended in five games, but it was a battle the whole way through.
The Lightning and Blue Jackets played six overtime periods and saw the total goals scored end up 14-12 in Tampa’s favour. There were long stretches where not much happened in the offensive end, which proved to be a test of patience for a high-octane offensive outfit like the Lightning.
“I think last year, if we learned anything, we learned that they’re a great team,” said Point. “They’re a hard-working defensive team that capitalize on mistakes. It was no different this year. I thought a lot of those games could have went either way and great for our group that we came out on top.”
Looking back, the Lightning acknowledged feeling more prepared for the battle after last year’s disappointment. They were a 62-win juggernaut that got swept by Columbus in Round 1 back in April 2019 and were forced to re-examine their process as a result.
“All of us collectively — from the coaching staff on the way down — had to be a little harder,” said Cooper. “We had to be better and we had to train ourselves to play a little bit of a different way, and we did.”
There are lessons to be found here for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which lost a best-of-five qualifier to the Blue Jackets at the outset of these playoffs and are built in a similar style to Tampa.
Here are three that jump out:
1. Get more comfortable with discomfort
This was a huge area of focus for Tampa in the wake of last year’s sweep. Fundamentally, the Lightning had been willing to trade scoring chances and goals because their skill could make the difference in 7-5 games — which was all well and good until the playoffs started and there were very few scoring chances to be found.
This season they prioritized trying to keep opponents to no more than two goals. That required Tampa to take fewer risks and focus more on the defensive end, which was good mental training for a rematch with Columbus that featured scores of 3-2, 3-1, 3-2, 2-1 and 5-4.
They won an eight-period marathon in Game 1 without ever leading until Point’s overtime winner. In Wednesday’s clincher, they erased a 4-2 deficit in the final eight minutes of regulation and credited their ability to stick with the gameplan for pulling it off.
“We’ve done a really good job of trying to win games like that,” said Lightning forward Tyler Johnson. “I think in years past we weren’t as comfortable in those close games and those one-goal games. I think we’ve done a good job of trying to focus on that. The guys just stuck together.
“Everyone was working hard and we were winning those games as teams and that’s what you need.”
Toronto rode the roller-coaster in its series with Columbus, squandering a three-goal lead in Game 3 before rallying from three goals down to win Game 4. After falling behind early in Game 5, the Leafs couldn’t break through against Joonas Korpisalo.
Of note, Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen identified this as an issue during his end-of-season media availability.
“We’ll look back and learn, but I do think the part of playing with tighter games, closer games, being comfortable with that I think is going to have a great benefit, especially in the playoffs,” said Andersen. “I think if we can get used to doing that in the season and not expecting to blow teams out or only real show up when it’s a really big game in the regular season, I think if we can have it more become an everyday thing and really get used to playing like that, I think that’s going to benefit us in the long run.”
2. Roster construction
Point scored two overtime winners in this series while Johnson and Anthony Cirelli both got on the board in Wednesday’s clincher, but Tampa was also able to rely on depth contributions.
In fact, Toronto’s stars arguably generated more against Columbus over five games than the Lightning’s stars managed to.
But no line was more dominant against the Blue Jackets than Blake Coleman-Yanni Gourde-Barclay Goodrow, who generated roughly 70 per cent of their expected goals while on the ice. They created pressure with a relentless forecheck — prompting Cooper to liken them to gnats — and produced four even-strength goals in the series.
“I feel like they’re always just buzzing around and as you try to knock them away, they just never leave and they’re pests,” said Cooper. “They put work ethic above everything else. They’re selfless players and they don’t have an off switch.”
Toronto, by comparison, deployed more skill on its third line but only had a single goal from 18-year-old rookie Nick Robertson to show for it. That makeup is something Kyle Dubas is capable of addressing, if he chooses, just as Julien BriseBois did for Tampa.
He brought in Coleman and Goodrow at the trade deadline in February because he felt his team needed to be a little more difficult to play against.
3. Killer instinct
A sense of occasion is invaluable in a playoff series, where momentum always swings and the difference between winning and losing usually isn’t much.
The Leafs were left lamenting their inability to win the third period against Columbus and take Game 1, plus the blown 3-0 lead midway through Game 3.
Tampa found a way to weather duress. It squeaked out a victory in the quintuple overtime Game 1, nursed a 2-1 advantage for the final 35 minutes of Game 4 and recovered from a blown 2-0 lead in Game 5.
Cooper said his only thought heading to the dressing room before the series-clinching overtime period was that the Lightning needed to find a way to finish the job, rather than letting a pesky opponent hang around.
The victory that followed clearly meant a lot to the veteran coach — “More than you’ll know,” he said — because of all the second-guessing his group faced after its loss to Columbus.
At some point in the future, the Leafs hope to find out.