My beloved Tampa Bay Lightning are down 2-0 in their series with the Columbus Blue Jackets, losing both their games on home ice. For a team that tied the record for regular-season wins at 62, that never dropped back-to-back games all year, that has a seemingly endless well of talent, it’s an absolutely gobsmacking situation.
Plenty of teams have come back from two games down in the playoffs. Some teams have even come back from three games down. But Tampa was so thoroughly dominated in the first two games that something major will have to change for them to dig out of this hole.
I’m certainly no hockey expert, but I am a pretty avid fan of the sport who has been watching the Lightning intently for the past 27 seasons, and I’ve been kind of worried this would happen. Playoff hockey is not like regular season hockey. The goal of regular season hockey is to get enough wins to get into the playoffs, and to stay relatively healthy doing it. In the regular season, talented, under-sized hockey players like those that fill Tampa’s roster can use their speed and quickness to get into the soft spots and find goal-scoring opportunities.
In playoff hockey, there are no soft spots. In playoff hockey, guys step it up a dozen notches, throwing their bodies around as if they were rented. In playoff hockey, it takes grit and toughness to win games, but also size and strength and an ability to physically dominate your opponent.
Tampa has built a team around fast, nimble, and under-sized forwards and young, talented defensemen. In the last two games against Columbus, the forwards were getting pushed around and the defensemen were showing their inexperience. (Actually, even Ryan McDonagh, who’s been so solid all year long, looked like he was out of his depth a few times.) And when the Lightning tried to come out and play a more physical game, as they did in the second period of Game 2, they didn’t do it smartly. Alex Killorn’s late hit early in the period earned him an interference penalty which led to a Blue Jackets power play goal.
In the regular season, the Lightning dominated their opponents by finding the time and space to create plays. In the playoffs, that time and space doesn’t exist unless you create it with your body.
In the regular season, the Lightning’s bread and butter were quick passing and pretty goals. In the playoffs, pretty goals are much, much harder to come by. More often than not, it’s gritty goals, greasy goals, and lucky bounces that come your way because you’re just relentlessly pounding away around the crease that are the difference-makers.
John Tortorella is a great coach (he led the Lightning to a Stanley Cup win in 2004, after all), and the Blue Jackets are a talented team that have been out-playing the Bolts for 5 out of 6 periods so far.
John Cooper is a great coach, too, and I believe the Lightning have it in them to go all the way this year. But in the back of my mind, I worry that they’re a team built for the regular season and not for the playoffs.
Prove me wrong, boys.