by Eric Fulton
The 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning will always be remembered for having perhaps the greatest regular season in National Hockey League (NHL) history. They tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins with 62. But this year’s Lightning and that Red Wings also have one thing in common: they did not win the Stanley Cup. While the Red Wings did make it to the Conference Finals in their season, the Lightning did not even get out of the first round.
The Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Going in to the series, Columbus had never won a playoff series in their history. They did have some motivation as they were coached by John Tortorella, who coached the Lightning to their only Stanley Cup championship in 2004. But, the Blue Jackets went in to this year’s playoffs as the equivalent of a 16 seed in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Every hockey analyst and I thought Tampa Bay would move on without any real threat. Most of us said Columbus would probably win one at best.
In game one, the Lightning struck big to gain a 3-0 lead after the first period and looked to run the Blue Jackets right out of the rink. But Columbus would score one goal in the second period, and then three more goals in the third period to stun Tampa Bay 4-3. Now losing a game when you’re up 3-0 is not as bad as losing a series when you’re up 3-0. The Lightning never recovered from the stunning game one loss as they lost game two by a score of 5-1. I thought when the series had moved to Columbus, the Lightning would get their game back, but leading scorer Nikita Kucherov was suspended for game three for his boarding hit on Columbus defenseman Markus Nutivaara, the question was who was going to help lead the turnaround. It should have been captain Steven Stamkos, but Columbus defense anchored by Seth Jones did an amazing job of not letting this high powered offense do anything in the series.
Another key factor in the upset was the play of Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky could have been pulled after giving up three goals in the first game. In games two and three, he gave up just two goals total. In game four, he made huge saves just as Tampa Bay was trying to take the lead and find a way to force a game five. He was clearly a better goaltender than Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. In addition to the great play of Bobrovsky, Columbus had great play by all stars Cam Atkinson, Artemi Panarin and trade deadline acquisition Matt Duchene. It seemed as though the Lightning did not have any answers to counterpunch the attack of the Blue Jackets. It also hurt the Lightning that all-star defenseman Victor Hedman missed the final two games with an injury.
Presidents’ Trophy Winners (winners of the NHL’s regular season) have had a history of not winning the Stanley Cup. The last team to win the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup in the same year was the Chicago Blackhawks. Four of the previous Presidents’ Trophy winners were eliminated in either the first or second round. Tampa Bay became the third team to win the Presidents’ Trophy only to be swept out of the playoffs joining the 1995 Detroit Red Wings and the 1988 Calgary Flames. However, they are the very first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept out of the first round.
The last time a number eight seed beat a number one seed in the playoffs was in 2012 when the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Vancouver Canucks in five games. The Kings would end up becoming the first number eight seed to win the Stanley Cup. Could Columbus be a team of destiny just like the 2012 Kings?
This was the biggest collapse by a favorite to win the Stanley Cup in NHL history. It will go down as one of the biggest playoff upsets in the history of sports, in general. When the 2016 Golden State Warriors, who won an NBA record 73 games in the regular season, lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, after leading the series three games to one, many sports fans believed it was the greatest collapse of all time. Tampa Bay took it steps further by not even managing to win a single game in the playoffs. In 2018, the Virginia Cavaliers became the first number one seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament to lose their opening round matchup against a number 16 seed. We may have thought both of those moments were big, but this upset should definitely be in the conversation.