The Lightning have finally met their match: Themselves

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 10: Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning reacts as members of the Columbus Blue Jackets celebrate at the end of Game One of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 10, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images)
Nikita Kucherov needs a big game in his return from suspension. (Getty)

You’ve surely heard the hype.

Every single metric, trend and lick of common sense had the Tampa Bay Lightning winning their first-round series with Columbus — and with relative ease. Head-to-head during the regular season, the Bolts absolutely stomped the Blue Jackets, going 3-0 with a 17-3 goal differential over three lopsided contests.

Tampa posted an NHL record-tying 62 wins and captured the Presidents’ Trophy while finishing an astounding 21 points better than any other team in the league. Now, they’re on the verge of being the first-ever regular season champion to be swept in the opening round.

In all facets of the game, up and down the lineup, the Lightning looked ready to annihilate a club that didn’t even lock up a wild-card spot until the season’s waning days.

The likely Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov put up one of the best regular-season offensive performances in recent memory. Behind him, two superstars in Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, and a host of other talented parts, rounded out Tampa’s forward group as the NHL’s deepest.

They had perennial Norris contender Victor Hedman leading an exceptional back end, and maybe the NHL’s best goaltender. A Jack Adams candidate in Jon Cooper mans the Lightning bench, and aside from the ailment plaguing Hedman, the team had a fairly clean bill of health heading into the playoffs.

Add it all up and read all the forecasts and predictions leading into the series, and you would’ve gotten the impression the Lightning didn’t even have an opponent to line up against in Round 1.

Alas, they did: Themselves.

Columbus has been amazing, there’s no doubt about that. But the Lightning have been more bad than the Jackets have been good. There were some signs at various points this season that Columbus could at least give Tampa a bit of a fight, but no indications that the Lightning had it within themselves to fizzle out this hard and fast.

As it often goes whenever a highly-talented squad finds itself on the brink of being inexplicably defeated by a far inferior opponent, all the favoured team had to do was stay out of its own way and, frankly, just show up. Tampa has done neither of those things and finds itself on the verge of maybe the biggest choke job we’ve ever seen as a result.

It starts with the big guns up front — Kucherov, Stamkos and Point — who transformed from offensive monsters into goal-scoring ghosts once the calendar flipped to playoff time. They collectively went from becoming the first trio in 23 years to each record 40-plus goals to straight-up invisible in the blink of an eye, recording zero tallies between them and posting a combined minus-9 rating so far.

Despite playing maybe his worst two outings of the season, the Bolts needed Kucherov more than ever on Sunday. A split-second blunder saw the likely MVP suspended for Game 3 after taking a late, ill-advised boarding penalty in Game 2. As far as “beating yourself” goes, Tampa’s best player brain-farting himself out of a crucial contest is about as close to the definition as you can get.

The trio’s postseason struggles go back to last year, as Stamkos, Kucherov and Point have combined for zero points and 27 shots on goal since Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Capitals.

After a three-goal outburst in the opening frame of Game 1, the Lightning’s offence — which scored 30 more times than any other club this season — has gone back into the witness protection program, being outscored 11-2 in the eight periods since and seeing its league-best power play put up a goose-egg in the series. Good penalty-killing from CBJ? Of course. Awful PP execution from the Bolts, and an inability to adjust? Absolutely.

But at least when the offence struggles, the Bolts’ elite blueline and all-world ‘tender would be there to hold the fort, right? Well, not exactly. Er, not at all.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, who posted a .925 save percentage in the regular season, has been beaten 11 times on 82 shots (.866 SV%). With the Lightning only scoring twice since that explosive opening 20 minutes, you can’t put this on the goaltender at all, but the netminder’s unusual struggles coming at the most important time of year is indicative of the team’s collective perils. Same with the blueline, which has been outshot, outscored and out-possessed by Columbus’s back-end unit.

No goals in sight. Not enough stops, either.

The Jackets, to their credit, have played way out of their stratosphere and deserve a bunch of credit — from their coach to their goaltender on out — for their part in assisting this monumental collapse from the Lightning, but let’s not complicate it too much.

The Blue Jackets have done a remarkable job in game-planning and neutralizing the Lightning's potent attack, but a group oozing with this much talent should be able to figure it out.

Teams as seemingly flawless and ready to win it all as the Lightning appeared to be are only really capable of losing to themselves.

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