IS IT OVER?
Regular-season Lightning remains missing, and time is running out.
Columbus Blue Jackets’ Matt Duchene celebrates a goal Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the second period of Game 3 of the NHL first-round playoff series in Columbus, Ohio. With the 3-1 loss, the Lightning, which for five months during the regular season never lost two in a row in regulation, has dropped three in a row to Columbus in the playoffs. and is one loss from elimination. The Lightning faces long odds of accomplishing something that has only been done four times in NHL history: come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
COLUMBUS — The wheels are off. This was supposed to be the greatest season in Lightning history, one of the greatest the NHL has ever seen.
But with a 3-1 loss to the Blue Jackets on Sunday in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, the Lightning is in an 0-3 hole, one loss from one of the most disappointing, embarrassing finishes in sports history.
Tampa Bay scored nearly at will in the regular season. It dominated special teams. It rebounded quickly, losing consecutive games only twice and never losing more than two straight. On the few occasions it was necessary, goalies stole games.
None of that is happening in the playoffs so far.
The Lightning has been outscored 12-5 over three games (12-2 if you take out the first period of Game 1). None of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov has a point in the series. (Kucherov didn’t play Sunday because of a one-game suspension for boarding Blue Jackets defenseman Markus Nutivaara in Game 2.)
When it looked like Tampa Bay had righted the special-teams ship, Columbus scored on one of its two power plays in Game 3 while the Lightning didn’t have any. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been good, but nothing like the game-stealing star goalie he is.
Now the Lightning’s only hope is to do something that has been done by only four teams in NHL history: come back from a 3-0 series deficit.
It’s a position the Lightning didn’t expect to be in.
“We’re still playing Tuesday (in Game 4),” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re still alive.”
When did the Lightning lose its game? Tyler Johnson’s answer was short and to the point: Game 1.
Tampa Bay hasn’t been able to get back to what made it successful in the regular season since giving up a 3-0 lead in Game 1. (Not helping in Game 3 was the absence of Victor Hedman, who was scratched a day after missing practice, which Cooper had attributed to a combination of body maintenance and being banged up.)
To make matters worst, Columbus seems to have all the answers. Even when Tampa Bay came on strong in Game 3’s third period, which it entered trailing 2-0, the Blue Jackets handled it.
The Lightning poured 17 shots on net in the third, finally pressuring goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but Columbus’ two-time Vezina Trophy winner turned away 16 of them.
When Ondrej Palat scored less than two minutes into the third to cutting the Lightning’s deficit to one, it felt like it could be the start of something.
“We pushed hard,” Steven Stamkos said. “If anything, maybe we found a recipe to break some of their structure there.”
But the Blue Jackets went into lockdown mode.
The Lightning couldn’t overcome two second-period Columbus goals by Matt Duchene and Oliver Bjorkstrand.
Cam Atkinson landed an empty-netter with a minute left.
The Lightning isn’t looking big picture. Ryan McDonagh said that focusing on the next game is the only way Tampa Bay can proceed.
Said Cooper: “You’re doing yourself a disservice if you look at the big picture. But I do know there was a lot of positive energy after the third period. As much down as the guys are about losing the game, and rightfully so, I think the guys liked how the second half started to go.”
The Lightning will find out if a period of Lightning-esque play is enough to spur yet another historic moment.
Andrei Vasilevskiy watches the puck hit the back of the net for one of the Blue Jackets’ two third-period goals, which put them up 2-0. The Lightning pulled within one in the third before an empty-netter.
DIANA C. NEARHOS
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky makes a save on the Lightning’s Adam Erne (73) during Game 3’s third period, when Tampa Bay racked up 17 shots and got its only goal of the game.