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A Tale of Two Sweeps

The Lightning and Penguins both had their playoff hopes dashed on Tuesday night. But of the two, Tampa Bay’s exit was the most perplexing—and disheartening to watch.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As was widely expected, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s first-round playoff series ended in a flashy, lopsided victory. The winners were buoyed by both outstanding goaltending on one end and high scoring on the other. Unsurprisingly, it was a dynamic 20-something Russian forward who buried the puck into an empty net in Game 4 to put the cap on a surging franchise’s definitive sweep. (Well, to put one cap on it, anyway: His teammates would add two more empty-net goals after that, slathering layer after sickening layer of icing on a celebratory cake.)

Very little about the way the Lightning–Blue Jackets series transpired was a surprise to anyone, really—except for the fact that Tampa Bay was the team that got swept.

With a 7-3 Game 4 win on Tuesday night, the Columbus Blue Jackets advanced to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s 18-season history, just a couple of weeks after barely squeaking into the playoffs. They did so by defeating a Lightning team that had been the NHL’s finest for the entirety of the regular season and will now go home having been knocked out in shocking fashion. “If you don’t accomplish the goal of winning it all, it’s a failure,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who scored a too-little-too-late goal on Tuesday night and did his dangling damndest to score more, said after the game. “We don’t care about what happened in the regular season.”

What happened in the regular season was that Tampa Bay won the Presidents’ Trophy—awarded each year to the league’s winningest team—and employed three of the NHL’s top 13 scorers. The Lightning featured supremely well-oiled special teams, were led by a charismatic coach who was recently rewarded with a multiyear contract extension, and tied the 1995-96 Red Wings as the fastest team in league history to get to 50 wins. Both their salary cap situation and style of play could be described as “stars aligned”: At the NHL Awards this June, it would not be out of the question to see members of the team win awards for best player, best defenseman, best goaltender, and best coach.

But in the first round of the playoffs, all the wrong stars aligned—and they spelled doom for the Lightning. In Game 1, after the Stanley Cup was wheeled on stage outside Amalie Arena for a pregame pump-up concert (weird flex, but OK), Tampa Bay got off to a 3-0 lead, the first step in what was sure to be a long march through the postseason. And then Columbus scored four unanswered goals, on the way to winning four unanswered games.

The Blue Jackets weren’t the only team completing a sweep on Tuesday night, though they were the most unlikely. Not too far from Columbus, in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were also dispatched in four games by the New York Islanders. “You play to your identity,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz, who won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals last season, said after New York’s victory. “What you do is what you do. And if you do it better than the other team, you’re going to have success.” The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in the past decade, and it felt weird to see the franchise exit the postseason after four games; it was the first time Sidney Crosby had lost in a sweep since 2013. But this year’s Pittsburgh team had its struggles all season and entered the first-round matchup as the lower seed against the Islanders (a post–John Tavares Ewing Theory contender these days!). The Lightning could draw no such connections between their regular-season play and their dismal showing.

“In today’s game, with the parity,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday night, “it’s not unusual for an 8 [seed] to beat a 1.” He was probably going for a seen-it-all, real-talk vibe with this line of reasoning, but it just came across more like lawyerly dissembling. (Better than the groveling, though!)

A few days earlier, after the Lightning lost Game 2, Cooper projected a similar aura, though he did admit that falling twice at home was more than a stumble. “This is a five-alarm fire,” he said then, sounding a bit like a dispatcher himself, with an air of grave calm performatively masking the panic beneath. The embarrassing Game 1 meltdown was bad enough, but things were rapidly going from bad to worse for Tampa Bay. Defenseman Victor Hedman, who led the team in average ice time all season and who, along with Stamkos, has made up the core of the team for nearly a decade, appeared in two playoff games before being sidelined by injury. And a frustrated Nikita Kucherov, whose 128 points in 82 games this season set a new team record, was suspended for Game 3 after a sequence in which he tripped Markus Nutivaara and then finished him dangerously into the boards.

Kucherov’s suspension was brutal for the Lightning, who struggled to recreate their offensive supremacy from the regular season against the Blue Jackets. It was also, more broadly, of a piece with the chaotic and often violent activity that has been taking place around the league this postseason. A Hurricanes rookie stepped to Alex Ovechkin in Game 3 of the Carolina-Washington series and got knocked out for his troubles, a memorable and chilling sight. In what is becoming an annual custom, Toronto’s Nazem Kadri was suspended for the remainder of the Bruins-Leafs series after a high hit on Jake DeBrusk in Game 2. In San Jose, Evander Kane and Ryan Reaves traded blows and Joe Thornton earned a one-game suspension.

Is “playoff hockey” distinct from the regular-season version of the sport? Technically, yes: Its overtime rules are different from the ones used the rest of the year, for example. But even beyond the rules is The Code, and it has long been a point of pride around the league that the playoffs are a particular brand of big boy hockey—a time when the refs swallow their whistles and just let the players play, a long war of attrition and a battle of grits.

That sounds noble, in its convoluted old-timer way, but should it be the case? Praising playoff hockey for its ferocity is kind of like hailing someone for being a last-second clutch player: Why not play that way the rest of the time, if it’s so great? Regardless of all these questions, the common answer is that the Lightning, with their speed-and-finesse style and their chill, smooth sail of a season, should have known better. And this year, it felt like they did.

This wasn’t a case of the Lightning not being prepared, or of them patting themselves on the back for crushing the regular season and being blindsided by Real Playoff Hockey; this is a team with an enormous amount of deep playoff experience under its belt. (Not only has Tampa Bay made it to two Eastern Conference finals and a Cup final since 2015, the team also features several former New York Rangers who played deep into the postseason for years and experienced the annoying achievement of winning the Presidents’ Trophy.) For months now, the team has seemed almost too cognizant of the dangers of so much winning; perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tampa Bay’s exit is shocking, but while Columbus’s greatest trick was somehow making this all look easy, it was ultimately hard won. For much of the season, the Blue Jackets were an interesting binary of a franchise. Head coach John Tortorella was perpetually on the hot seat; celebrated young talent Artemi Panarin constantly seemed disgruntled and on the verge of bolting. The team lived and died with its sometimes streaky goalie.

None of those issues have necessarily gone away, but for now, they’re just regular-season problems: out of sight, out of mind. A happy fan poured beer on Tortorella after the game and he wasn’t even mad; Panarin scored that first of three empty-net goals and had a great time in the handshake line. The Blue Jackets were aggressive at the trade deadline, acquiring Matt Duchene, and they fought their way into the postseason, sharpening their claws all the while. (Even this jinxy pregame tweet couldn’t slow the team down.) Managing all this ambient drama apparently turned out to be better preparation for the postseason than stuff like having three 40-goal scorers. “I don’t know what to say,” said both Stamkos and Kucherov following their loss, and their silence spoke volumes.