The Columbus Blue Jackets at last have their first playoff series victory in franchise history and it is an astonishing one. With a 7-3 victory Tuesday in Game Four, the Jackets completed their first round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning and essentially stunned the hockey world.
Columbus now the first team to sweep a Presidents’ Trophy winner in the first round since the start of the expansion era. This also marks just the third time a Presidents’ Trophy winner has been swept, period.
For the Lightning, this has to be staggering. Tampa had 62 wins in the regular season, tying the NHL record with the 1995-1996 Detroit Red Wings, but it didn’t matter when post-season hockey began.
“They were the better team,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. “They executed their game plan. I don’t know what to say. If we had the answers we would have found a way to win a game.”
So, how did the Blue Jackets do it?
Quite simply, they had an answer for everything.
It started with a balanced attack, as Columbus had a dozen players hit the scoresheet. Tuesday, it was rookie Alexandre Texier’s turn. He scored two goals, one an empty-netter, after coming over from Finland’s KalPa.
New acquisition Matt Duchene was every bit as advertised, with seven points in the four-game series. Artemi Panarin proved he was worth the contract gamble, with five points in four games. And Zach Werenski also had five points in four, including three points on the power play.
After the attack, it was all about the forecheck.
Columbus was simply better at getting to loose pucks and playing containment hockey. They held Steven Stamkos off the scoresheet until Tuesday, pinning him to a minus-8 overall.
Nikita Kucherov was likewise frustrated, playing to just two assists – both of which also came in Game Four. The stifling of the 25-year-old was indicative of the entire series, as his 128-point performance in the regular season was rendered moot by the Blue Jackets’ aggression. To cap it off, Kucherov was suspended for Game Three after his irritation boiled over at last.
Then there was Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who turned aside 109 of 117 Tampa shots in the series for a goals against average of 2.01. Like Panarin, Bobrovsky was a contract gamble for general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen. Like Panarin, Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid, Bobrovsky will be an unrestricted free agent come this summer.
But that type of gamble could well pay off now, especially after this historic sweep. If anything can entice a player to stick with a franchise, hoisting the Stanley Cup after dominating the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the first round could do the trick.
“I’m so happy for them because I think they really can see if you’re a unit you can get some things accomplished,” said Columbus coach John Tortorella. “As we approach the second round, wherever it may be, it’s going to have to be even tighter. I think this is a really good foundation, (and) you can do some really crazy things if you stay together as a unit.”
This team, clearly capable of “really crazy things,” will now face the winner of the Boston Bruins/Toronto Maple Leafs series.
(Photo credit: Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)