COLUMBUS — The Tampa Bay Lightning are going home lamenting a historic collapse 10 days after celebrating a record-tying accomplishment.
How in the world did this happen?
“I don’t know,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “I don’t know what to say.”
He wasn’t alone.
Tampa Bay finished the regular season April 6 by tying the NHL record for most wins in a season with 62. The Lightning finished their stunningly short run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Tuesday as the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept in the first round.
The Columbus Blue Jackets defeated the Lightning 7-3 in Game 4 at Nationwide Arena to make a little history of their own, winning a playoff series for the first time. They will play either the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. Toronto leads that best-of-7 series 2-1 and hosts Game 4 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVAS, NESN).
“You have a historic regular season doing what we did and have basically a historic playoff in defeat,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “The guys battled hard. Six days in April, Columbus played better than we did. That was it.”
There will be questions about what happens now for Tampa Bay. Some were asked in the moments after Game 4.
Do they need to re-evaluate the roster? Does this team have a problem overcoming adversity in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Will there be big changes?
“That’s the farthest thing from my mind,” Cooper said. “What’s on my mind is the fact that we fly home tonight and in a couple days a team that I loved to coach and a bunch of guys who loved to be together are not going to be together anymore. That’s the part that is not easy.
“I can’t look to the future and see what is going to happen. It’s more kind of a depressing feeling that this group is not going to be together anymore.”
He and others will have the answers, or at least try to, in time. No doubt there will be a lot of reflection.
For now, though, it’s about trying to digest what happened in a first-round series that for the first 20 minutes looked like it was going to be a breeze for the Lightning.
They led 3-0 in the first period of Game 1. They were outscored 19-5 over the next 11 periods.
What went wrong?
“Everything,” Stamkos said.
The Lightning struggled to possess the puck, to skate with it, to make plays. Those were three of their biggest strengths all season, and the Blue Jackets turned them into their weaknesses with relentless pressure, great sticks, smart reads, sturdy structure and discipline.
“We obviously didn’t have the answers,” Stamkos said. “They executed obviously a pretty detailed game plan to slow us down, and we didn’t really have a response to it.”
Special teams were a huge part of the Lightning’s success this season. They led the NHL on the power play (28.2 percent) and penalty kill (85.0 percent).
“Let us down in playoffs,” Stamkos said.
The Lightning were 1-for-6 with a shorthanded goal-against on the power play, including 0-for-5 in Games 1 and 2. They did not have a power play in Game 3 and scored on their one chance in Game 4.
Tampa Bay was 5-for-10 and scored a shorthanded goal on the penalty kill.
The Blue Jackets scored their game-winning goals in Games 1, 2 and 3 on the power play. In Game 4, it came on a delayed penalty at 6-on-5, with Oliver Bjorkstrand scoring with 1:14 left in the second period.
“It’s not the lack of power plays or anything like that, it was just [we] couldn’t kill them off,” Cooper said. “We give up a power-play goal and give up a 6-on-5 goal, and that’s it. You look at the series and how close it was. The scores might not show it, but it’s a one-goal game and ultimately special teams were the difference in all of them.”
It didn’t help that the Lightning didn’t have two of their best defensemen — Victor Hedman, the Norris Trophy winner last season, and Anton Stralman — healthy in the series.
Hedman played in Games 1 and 2 but didn’t look good. He missed Games 3 and 4 with an undisclosed injury. Stralman didn’t play in the series because of a lower-body injury.
It also didn’t help that right wing Nikita Kucherov, the NHL points leader this season with 128 (41 goals, 87 assists), was suspended for Game 3.
The Lightning trailed 2-1 in the third period of Game 3 and were mounting a comeback. They really could have used Kucherov at the time.
They had him back in Game 4 but were swarmed early, trailing 2-0 less than four minutes into the first period.
“In the end, it’s just we just couldn’t find our game,” Cooper said. “That was it. It had been with us all year, and for six days in April we couldn’t find it. It’s unfortunate because it puts a blemish on what was a [heck] of a regular season.”
Cooper was left conflicted about the Lightning’s regular-season success given their quick playoff exit.
“I think if we down the road win a Stanley Cup, I’ll be able to reconcile it then,” Cooper said. “Right now, it’s tough.”