April 14, 2024

Wednesday was game five of the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Columbus Blue Jackets. For Columbus, it was do or die as they entered the contest in a hard-fought series that stood 3-1 in Tampa’s favor. Down 2-0 in the first period, the Jackets had their work cut out for them, and work they did indeed.

Columbus captain Nick Foligno scored at the 11:51 mark in the first period cutting his team’s deficit in half. A full period later, Kevin Stenlund of the Jackets scored his first NHL playoff goal to even the score at two apiece.  Then it felt like the damn broke.  Alexander Wennberg sent one past Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with 16 seconds left to go in the second period giving the Jackets their first lead of the afternoon.  Around the halfway point of the third period, Oliver Bjorkstrand took advantage of a sprawling Vasilevskiy and sent a wrister top shelf to blow the game open at 4-2.

Just when it looked like Columbus had more than enough to carry them through to the end of the game, the memories started flooding back from the play-in series against Toronto last week.  Remember, the game when Columbus allowed a flurry of three unanswered goals in the final four minutes of the game to hand the game over to the Maple Leafs.  Thankfully the boys in red, white and blue recovered from that debacle and won the series.  Today, however, there’d be no recovering if they lost and the Lightning were already seeing red knowing they possessed the superior offense.  

Two and a half minutes after Bjorkstrand’s goal, Kevin Shattenkirk lit the lamp.  Despite the Jackets still being up 4-3 at that point, one has to wonder if the exhausting marathon mentality kicked in for Columbus at that point.  Only up one goal against one of the most blistering defenses in the league with the realization that they still have eight minutes to play is not comforting.  Tampa had every intention to get that fourth goal.

Around the two-minute mark, Lightning head coach John Cooper pulled Vasilevskiy to get the extra attacker out on the ice.  If Tampa saw red, Columbus saw blue, a whole blanket of it.  The Lightning sweaters took absolute control of the game at that point despite their empty net.  The gamble paid off for Cooper and crew when Anthony Cirelli tied the game with 1:38 left in regulation.  

It was a sinking feeling like against Toronto, but this one felt different, worse even.  This time it felt like recovery was not only elusive but unobtainable.  Tampa had vacuumed the wind right out of the Jackets’ sails and did so in dramatic fashion. It was insult to injury as the two teams headed to their respective locker rooms for the impending overtime. 

At just over five minutes into OT, Brayden Point, the Lightning center who has given the Blue Jackets more trouble in this series than anyone else on the Tampa roster, drove the stake through the heart of Columbus’ continuing playoff chances to end the game 5-4 and the series 4-1.  One thing to take note of, however, is that this series outcome makes the matchup look lopsided on paper.  

The reality is all five games in this series were only decided by one goal.  Don’t forget that game one was the fourth-longest game in NHL history and Joonas Korpisalo smashed the record for most saves in a game with 85.  Columbus is not an offensive-strength team.  They have to fight harder than most other teams for a goal.  Their power play has been anemic for years.  There is no standout sniper on the team as Panarin left last summer for the Rangers and Cam Atkinson has been a shell of his former self without a setup man to get him the puck.  

The point is this team went toe to toe with two of the most potent offenses in the league between Toronto and Tampa.  They dismissed one and kept it oh-so-close with each game against the other team.  If Columbus had an offense, they could march into the Eastern Conference Finals.  As it stands, they play to their defensive strengths, but Jarmo Kekäläinen and his staff need to build up some long term fixes for that offense this coming offseason.  If not, expect to see more first-round exits in the coming years. 


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