The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2018-19 regular season was one for the history books — they tied the NHL record for wins with 62, led the NHL in power-play and penalty kill percentage, had three 40-goal scorers in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point, Kucherov amassed the highest point total since 1996, and Kucherov, Stamkos, and Point each scored more than 90 points. Even in the most conservative analytical models available, the Lightning were favored to beat the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets to open the postseason.
Columbus’ upset of Tampa Bay isn’t a monumental surprise, the Blue Jackets had strong underlying numbers entering the playoffs, but the way it happened most certainly was.
This season’s Tampa Bay Lightning are the only Presidents’ Trophy winner in NHL history to be swept in the first round. The Lightning didn’t falter due to a “lack of heart” or not having enough “character”, as some narratives would like to imply. The Lightning lost this series due to a variety of factors — most importantly: an inability to carry play consistently at five-on-five, a failure to adapt to the forecheck of Columbus, their special teams failing to live up to expectations, and their Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender struggling at the worst time.
Five-on-five play and forechecking
Below are offensive shot rate charts that showcase the volume of shot attempts a team generates in the offensive zone and where these shots come from. The more red a specific area is, the more often a team shoots from there, and vise versa for blue. These are the charts for the Lightning during the regular season (left) and playoffs (right).
Tampa Bay’s bread and butter, offensively, was dominating the area between the faceoff circles, known as the slot, but against Columbus, they didn’t pose a threat there. This is largely due to the defensive structure the Blue Jackets employed against the Lightning. Columbus’ aim was to keep Tampa Bay on the perimeter and force the Lightning to take low-danger shots from the boards or the top of the offensive zone, also known as the point. A lot was made about Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff struggles, but he’s always been an elite goaltender, he was going to put it together eventually and did so in this series. Now, the Blue Jackets did make his life easier overall, but that doesn’t diminish Bobrovsky’s .932 save percentage performance. He had to make plenty of difficult saves to keep momentum in Columbus’ favor in all series, especially in Game 4.
As Alison Lukan wrote in The Athletic, another facet of Tampa Bay’s struggles at five-on-five was Columbus’ forecheck, or the pressure a team applies on an opposing puck carrier in their respective zone. The Blue Jackets employed a 1-2-2 strategy that disrupted Tampa Bay’s breakout and neutral zone strategy. The 1-2-2 is a forechecking formation that uses layers of defense to stifle an opposing team’s ability to effectively breakout of their defensive zone. The “1” signifies the lead forechecker, or F1, who initiates the forecheck and forces the puck into a specific direction. The first “2” identifies the other forwards on the ice, F2 and F3, their job is to read what the puck carrier is doing and attempt to cut off a passing lane to another forward. The last “2” signifies the two defensemen, D1 and D2, who are deeper in the neutral zone as the last layer of defense.
Columbus understood that if Tampa Bay was allowed to use their speed and skill during breakouts, then they would be at a disadvantage. Columbus compensated by making Tampa Bay go through layers of defenders who would aggressively attack and cut off passing lanes.
Defensively, Tampa Bay didn’t give Columbus much. Below are the shot charts for the Blue Jackets during the regular season (left) and playoffs (right).
From the charts, you can tell that Tampa Bay did an effective job limiting the chances Columbus had at five-on-five, however, the Blue Jackets still outscored Tampa Bay, 9-6 (removing empty net goals), during five-on-five play. This mostly stems from defensive breakdowns from the Lightning, but odd-man rushes also caused issues.
Here, during the opening minutes of Game 2, you can see Columbus’ forecheck caused a minor breakdown in the Lightning’s defense. Cam Atkinson pinned Erik Cernak against the boards, which forced Cernak to pass sooner than he wanted. Now, watch Matt Duchene after the faceoff; he hovered near J.T. Miller and the moment Atkinson tied up Cernak he immediately went to cut off the passing lane. Atkinson then glided into the lower slot as Duchene won the puck battle against Miller. Cernak is in no man’s land and never looked at Atkinson once the board battle was over, he’s focused on Duchene. Duchene realized this and took advantage of Cernak scrambling to recover by firing a hard pass that bounced off Atkinson’s stick and through Andrei Vasilevksiy.
First, this is great puck recovery and movement by the Blue Jackets. Second, with Cernak committed to higher coverage in the defensive zone, it’s Mathieu Joseph’s responsibility to cover low. His failure to position himself correctly enabled Adam Clendening to feed a cross zone pass for an Oliver Bjorkstrand one-timer. The shot went wide, but Pierre-Luc Dubois was there for the rebound since Ryan McDonagh didn’t position himself properly. This goal is mainly on Joseph for missing his assignment, Clendening’s pass wouldn’t have happened if Joseph covered Bjorkstrand correctly.
These are just excerpts of what Tampa Bay failed to do correctly during the series. There are other examples that didn’t result in goals, but stem from the same issues.
Special teams and goaltending
Coming into the series, the Lightning boasted the NHL’s top power-play (28.2 percent) and was in a three way tie for the top penalty kill (85 percent with Columbus and the Arizona Coyotes), while the Blue Jackets had the fourth worst power-play in the NHL this season (15.4 percent). During the series, the Lightning went 1-for-6 on the man advantage while the Blue Jackets went an absurd 5-for-10. Additionally, both teams only scored a single shorthanded goal, both in Game 1.
Of Columbus’ five power-play goals, four were scored from either the point or the top of the faceoff circles. Only Duchene’s power-play goal from Game 2 was in-close. The common theme of those four goals? A dogged determination to obscure goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s vision. Vasilevskiy has struggled with long-range shots all season, but the Lightning’s inability to move traffic out of his sight lines hurt him in the series. Injuries to defensemen Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman didn’t help, but Hedman played in the first two games and wasn’t good in either showing.
This leads to the final point; Vasilevskiy wasn’t Vasilevskiy. During the season, he was one of the best goaltenders in the league, especially on the penalty kill. His play did dip during the month of March, but goaltending is an ebb-and-flow position. To start the series, Vasilevskiy looked solid, but as the series continued he began to struggle. As mentioned earlier, his propensity for allowing long-range shots was victimized by the Blue Jackets in the series, especially on the power play.
It also doesn’t help when a starting goaltender allows a goal like this to happen. As bad as Hedman was on this play, Vasilevskiy didn’t even move on the shot.
Another example comes from Game 4 where Seth Jones made it 3-1 at 6:28 of the second period. Mikhail Sergachev went to block the shot, but Jones shot around him. Vasilevskiy was able to see the shot, but whiffed on the location. The goaltender wasn’t solely to blame here, but this was a shot that he should’ve been able to track.
Vasilevskiy’s save percentage in the postseason of .856 ended up being a far cry from his .925 during the regular season.
If any one of the aforementioned issues are isolated, then the rest of Tampa Bay’s strengths would have carried them. Unfortunately, for the Lightning, all of these factors arose at the same time and ultimately sank a promising season. As gut-wrenching and embarrassing as this loss was, general manager Julien BriseBois is still confident in his roster. During exit interviews on Thursday, he had this to say in regards to the team moving forward.
We have a very good team. We have very good players and very good coaches. I’m not going to overreact and blow up all the good things we have here because we had a very bad four-game slump at the most inopportune time of the year. The story of this nucleus of players and this coaching staff, it’s not over. It’s still being written. The best and most memorable chapters lie ahead. I have great faith eventually ... we’re going to bring the Cup back to Tampa with this group of players, with these coaches.
The message from BriseBois is clear. The mission moving forward shifts to learning from this humbling lesson. The players, and especially the coaching staff, have to be able to adapt effectively in the future. Columbus adapted after the opening period of Game 1 and controlled the series from there. Tampa Bay failed to adapt until their backs were up against the wall during the final period of Game 4. In the end, Tampa Bay’s failure to make adjustments to Columbus’ gameplan ultimately sank one of the most dominant regular seasons hockey fans have ever seen.
Such a shame it went to waste.