Blue Jackets cap off all-time upset, sweep Lightning

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Let this be a lesson.

A lesson that anything is possible, no matter the odds. A lesson in never writing off a team, no matter the circumstances. And a lesson that, no matter how good a team is in the regular season, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference come playoff time.

Yes, the Columbus Blue Jackets pulled off what many thought impossible, an upset for the ages after a 7-3 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night in Game 4 of their best-of-7 series.

Swept.

The Lightning certainly crashed (the first Presidents’ Trophy-winning team to be swept in the first round), and the Blue Jackets won their first playoff series in franchise history.

Gone are the horrors of that crossbar in overtime of Game 3 against Washington last year. So, too, with it, the agony of losing four straight after beating the Capitals twice in their own barn.

Columbus returned to the postseason this year with a vengeance, and my, oh my, did it ever show.

The formula for Tampa seemed simple enough. Do what you did all regular season: score at will, steal souls on the power play and suck the will out of teams with superb goaltending.

It’s a recipe that cooked up 62 wins, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most ever in a season. But when the Lightning checked the cupboards for ingredients in Game 1, the cupboard was bare.

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Sure, the Lightning exploded to a 3-0 first-period lead in Game 1. They then gave up four straight and lost in spectacular fashion.

Why you ask? The Blue Jackets implemented a near-perfect game plan from the second period of Game 1, onward. A relentless forecheck stifled the Lightning. A commitment to blocked shots took away scoring chances. Providing great screens in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy made a great goalie seem mediocre. And finding scoring from the up and down the lineup, both on forward and defense, added a layer of guesswork that Jon Cooper and his troops had no answer for.

Since the 17:50 mark of the first period in Game 1, Columbus outscored 19-5.

The stat actually looks better given that the Lightning scored twice to tie the game 3-3 in the second period. But as things went all series, the Blue Jackets had an answer, scoring on a delayed penalty to regain the lead.

Tampa poured it on for nearly 18 minutes in the third before pulling Andrei Vasilevskiy. That last gasp effort resulted in three empty net goals against. The clouds cleared and the Blue Jackets emerged standing, virtually unblemished.

Vasilevskiy came into the game with a .866 save percentage and a 3.73 goals-against average, numbers that look nothing like his stellar regular-season statistics that may win him a Vezina in June.

He was at his worst in this series, allowing four more on 22 shots in this game, and had just one game above a .900 save percentage in the series.

Two-hundred feet the other way, Sergei Bobrovsky was sensational, especially in the second and third games of the series, and masterful in the third period in Game 4, turning aside all 13 shots the Lightning could muster.

It certainly didn’t help that Tampa’s best scorers only showed up in the final game. Steven Stamkos finally scored. So did Brayden Point. Nikita Kucherov got two assists after being suspended for Game 3. The team was also without Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman due to injury. It’s unlikely they would have mattered. They didn’t when they were healthy.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets’ best came to play. Matt Duchene finished the series with three goals and seven points. Artemi Panarin added two goals and five assists. Seth Jones contributed two goals and four points. Pierre-Luc Dubois picked a great time to find the score sheet, picking up three points in the final game.

John Tortorella said his team was ready for the challenge a week ago. Man, was he ever right.

Columbus proved us all wrong, and it was incredible theatre.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck