Hernando Sun Sports Writer
The Tampa Bay Lightning were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, getting swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. This is the first time the President’s Trophy winners did not win a game in the playoffs. This brings up the question of: was this season a failure?
In some ways no. The Lightning tied the record for most wins in a season at 62. They were a dominant force throughout the regular season, scoring 325 goals in total which was 36 more than the next team. With only 222 goals allowed, they were the fifth toughest defense to score on too. The Lightning also was the best team in the league in powerplay scoring and tied for the league best on the penalty kill.
Individually, the Lightning also had tons of success. Team captain Steven Stamkos set a new franchise goals record, maintaining his consistently excellent performances throughout his career. Forward Nikita Kucherov broke a team single-season points record on his way to winning the Art Ross Trophy for most points scored in the league. His 128 point season is now the most for any Russian-born player in NHL history. If that’s not enough for Kucherov, he is also one of the favorites to win the Hart Memorial Trophy for league MVP. Finally, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy led the league in wins at 39, despite missing time with an injury earlier this season. Vasilevskiy is again one of the favorites to win the Vezina Trophy for top goaltender this season, an award many might say he is overdue to win.
All of these individual and team accomplishments should add up to a successful season, but when this happens, the expectations grow that much more. With no disrespect intended to the Columbus Blue Jackets, they were not a team the Lightning should have lost to, especially not the way they did. The Lightning was outplayed and thoroughly outcoached this series. After jumping out to a 3-0 lead after the first period of game one, the Lightning was outmaneuvered by Columbus head coach John Tortorella. Lightning coach Jon Cooper seemed to have no answer to the changes Tortorella made, and the team suffered for it.
Individually, the team’s stars played poorly as well. For as impressive as Kucherov’s regular season was, his playoff performance was pitiful. Along with only getting two assists during the four games, he also made some boneheaded decisions that got him suspended for game three when he hit a downed Markus Nutivaara into the boards in a needless show of frustration late in their game two loss.
Stamkos was no better. Playing in all four games, the captain managed only one goal and one assist, while also going -8 in goal differential. His goal came in game 4 and did lead to a push from the Lightning, but Columbus was just too hot and Tampa never could capitalize on any momentum.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. The Blue Jackets had to grind just to make the playoffs and finished the season winning seven of their last ten games and riding high on that momentum. While the Lightning also won big to close the regular season, they committed one sin every hockey team needs to avoid: they got hurt. Star defenseman Victor Hedman missed time during the end of the season, which made him rusty and not effective at all during the playoffs. Not only that, but he missed two of the games due to his injury, including game four where a healthy Hedman would have been a huge presence.
It is understandable to see people praise the performance of the Lightning this season since they did beyond exceptional this year. That said, losing to Columbus in the first round, especially the way they did, should mark this season as a failure for Tampa Bay only to set the tone for next year’s expectations.