Welcome to “An Oral History of the Sweep” where the staff of 1st Ohio Battery relives the Columbus Blue Jackets' epic, four-game throttling of the Presidents Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning.
ROB MIXER, SENIOR EDITOR: Alright, we’re back for Game 3. The Blue Jackets have taken the first two games against all odds. Probably the weirdest, most out-of-left-field scenario I think any of us could think of, where you’re no longer playing with house money, but all the pressure is now on you. Going into this game, you could just feel it throughout Columbus. It was pulsing in a way – for hockey – that I’ve never seen before. Looking around, being downtown all the time and living here, seeing how many people were out at lunch-time, in their jerseys, walking around, at restaurants, on patios, drinking, getting ready for Game 3 on a Sunday. To see what was going on was almost surreal.
It was a lot different in my mind than the year before when they came home with a 2-0 series lead, where the Capitals kind of changed that series with a goalie change. For some reason, who the hell knows why they did this, but Philipp Grubauer played the first two games of that series before they were like, “oh, shit, we have a better goalie, we should play him." Then they put Braden Holtby in, who was better at the time, and they just ran the table. Tampa had nowhere to turn. They had their guy in goal (Andrei Vasilevskiy), who hadn’t played badly, hadn’t played great, but the Jackets had solved him, and they’re coming home with this wave of momentum. Everything was set up to be perfect. For me – and I think the rest of us felt like this too – man, if the Jackets fall flat on their face in Game 3, this whole thing turns on its head really quick. You know Tampa’s pissed, you know they’re going to play their best, but at the same time I had this burgeoning confidence in the Jackets that, we’d seen them do something we’d never seen them do before, and they looked the part of a team that was ready to do something that they hadn’t done before.
Chris, what did you think going into Game 3 that maybe you hadn’t felt the year before or maybe in seasons prior where they’re coming back to Columbus with some modicum of momentum?
CHRIS PENNINGTON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR: Yeah, I think just the way that Game 2 had ended had given me even a minuscule amount of confidence heading into Game 3. I mean, it was a blowout victory where you’re getting goals from the Riley Nash’s of the world. On top of that, Nikita Kucherov, the leading point-getter in the NHL, was suspended. I think things were just lining up. I agree that there was pressure on Columbus to finish this job, the memes around the hockey world saying “Oh, Columbus has a two-nothing lead, you know what happens next” but at the same time, this is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have choked how many postseasons in a row away after how many incredible regular seasons. Obviously there’s pressure on both teams going into any playoff series, but I think there was so much pressure on Tampa to complete the mission of what they had started with their incredible record. Columbus was still flying under the radar in a sense, there wasn’t that expectation. If they do drop four straight, “well, it’s the President’s Trophy-winning team, it’s okay” and I think the year prior was “well, they’ve gotten this far (to a 2-0 lead) and this would be a choke-job." But they were playing freely and they just walked into Game 3 ready to show who they were again.
ROB: Dan, were they playing with house money in Game 3?
|Matt Duchene (2)Atkinson (1), Werenski (3) at 1:44|
|Oliver Bjorkstrand (1), PPGJones (1), Texier (1) at 8:25|
|Ondrej Palat (1)Cernak (3), Johnson (1) at 4:40|
|Cam Atkinson (2)Panarin (3), Harrington (1) at 19:00|
DAN DUKART, STAFF WRITER: To me, yes, because the worst-case scenario is they lose and they’re still up 2-1 at home. However, knowing what happened the year before against Washington, it would be hard to go back to the same well for the second year in a row. I will say, that the first period, with the building as electric – at this point – as its ever been, to almost escape the first period 0-0, as weird as that sounds, was huge for the Blue Jackets. It wasn’t like they played poorly or well, it’s just the idea of, “let’s just settle down here, let’s calm ourselves down and get back to what we’ve shown we can do the past two games” and I think coming out of that first intermission they were a new team. They stormed Tampa in the second.
ROB: Jacob, it felt like, as Chris and Dan both said, some house money involved, the thought that it can’t go any better than it had in the first two games. But it almost felt like the Jackets couldn’t afford to fall flat on their face in this game, could they?
JACOB NITZBERG, STAFF WRITER: No, absolutely not. That definitely would have hurt a ton. The year prior, with Washington, we saw what happened with a 2-0 lead. But this wasn’t the same energy. Even in Oxford, the day of the game there were people walking around with jerseys on at 11 AM on a Sunday. I can’t even imagine what the energy was like in Columbus. So the whole city is amped, and the Blue Jackets have this opportunity to go up 3-0 on the President’s Trophy-winning team, a team that a lot of people not only picked to win the Stanley Cup but to breeze through the competition. It was the perfect opportunity to put a commanding lead and kind of nullify any hope of a Lightning comeback in this series.
ROB: So Tampa is without two of their three best players (Kucherov and Hedman), and you still kind of feel like, Dan said they escaped the first period, and you almost have to weather your own storm, get through the energy and the hype and get to your game. For the Jackets, Dan, playing the first two on the road was almost an advantage in a way where they could just play their game and nobody gave a shit. But at home, you feel like you have to put on a show, be the big dog, play into the hype, but they didn’t do that. From the drop of the puck, they stuck to their plan, right?
DAN: Yeah, absolutely. The biggest thing for me is that they never gave Tampa a chance, like an early power-play opportunity, or really any opportunity to assert their dominance from the beginning. Re-watching the game, Columbus had some nice scoring chances in the first period. Josh Anderson walked in on a mini-breakaway, they had other chances to score. Even though Tampa was better than in Game 2, they couldn't find their stride.
"The biggest thing for me is that they never gave Tampa a chance, like an early power-play opportunity, or really any opportunity to assert their dominance from the beginning."– Dan Dukart
CHRIS: Yeah, we didn’t give them a power play all game.
ROB: This was the type of game that Columbus wanted to play, a low event game in the first period. But like you guys said, there wasn’t any chance for Tampa to really sink their teeth in or to latch onto something and say, “we can build on this”. The Jackets are still going about their game, still going to give you pretty much nothing. Then in the second period, the Jackets strike first, on that backhand from Matt Duchene, and it feels like they’re in control. They’re not letting up, they’re not sitting back. In this series, that meant something different. It meant not giving them a chance to feel good about themselves.
CHRIS: Not to get into a counseling session, but I honestly think the Jackets played without as much emotion as they had in past years. You look at their first playoff series against Detroit, it’s their first playoff series ever and their second and third times against the Penguins, and I just remember being in the building for those home playoff games and it’s almost like the players were going for the extra…they were almost over-asserting themselves. It felt like they were playing the same game as Game 1 and Game 2 where it’s, “we’re going to play lockdown defense and we’re going to pick our chances and we’re going to bet on ourselves” because I think Tampa was honestly waiting for Columbus to get a little over-excited. I can imagine Jon Cooper telling his team, “hey, this team we’re playing has never won more than two games in a series, let’s bet on ourselves here." And I think Columbus just stayed composed when they would have had every reason coming off a 5-1 victory to blow the roof off the place and get the fans excited. They did what they needed to do to win the game instead of getting caught up in the lights.
ROB: Oh, yeah. Game 3 was personally was the first time I felt like I got caught up in it. Going into the game, I really thought the Jackets were going to blow them away. This was teed up for them to change the narrative of how they play at home in the playoff, and how people think of them. They win the game, obviously, but they had to really work for it in the second and third periods more than I would have thought they would have to. Jacob, when this game goes 2-0 Jackets, Oliver Bjorkstrand rips one through on the power play and the building is losing its lid and that momentum thing that we were just talking about, not a real thing, you can’t quantify it, but it feels like – again – the Blue Jackets are pounding the will out of this team that had the most will in the regular season.
JACOB: Absolutely. And they were doing it in a different way than Game 2. They weren’t blowing them out of the water offensively. They were doing something they did really well all series, they limited Tampa’s chances offensively even if it meant limiting chances going forward for themselves. That’s where I think they got into trouble a little bit in the third when Palat scored. I was feeling comfortable up until that point. They let it slip a little bit and I think they got too focused on defending a lead rather than trying to score that 3-0 goal that would have put it to bed.
"Game 3 was personally was the first time I felt like I got caught up in it. Going into the game, I really thought the Jackets were going to blow them away."– Rob Mixer
ROB: That’s a good segue. Dan, when it goes 2-1 like that, that was maybe the first time in the whole series that I felt like the Jackets were kind of playing it safe, trying to protect what they built. I think that 2-1 goal very quickly made them understand, “okay, you can’t do this”.
DAN: You know, being at this game, that Palat goal happened with like 15 minutes left in the third period, and I remember thinking to myself, “this is going to be the longest 15 minutes of gameplay ever”. It’s one thing to say – all teams say, “we’ve gotta keep pressuring, don’t change a thing”, but the truth is human psychology plays a part here, and you almost just trick yourself into playing this prevent-defense type of shell. Columbus wasn’t all that different here. And it really was the longest 15 minutes.
One thing I wanted to bring up: this was kind of the coming-out party, at least in the playoffs, for Alexandre Texier. He was a late-season call-up, played the last two games, obviously did enough to play in the playoffs, and he was fine in Games 1 and 2. But he had the assist on that Bjorkstrand power-play goal that you guys brought up earlier. But then with two minutes left in the game, he had a 2-on-1 with Josh Anderson and elected to shoot. It may have been their best scoring chance since the Tampa 2-1 goal. And I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘John Tortorella really has a 19-year old dude out here with like 2:18 left’. And that kind of blew my mind, but you almost did take comfort in that, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know how they’re going to win this game, but they’re going to win this game’.
ROB: Yeah, right. Chris, John Tortorella has talked a lot about how crazy this season was, about how much stuff they had to deal with, but, the way that he coached this series, I think, is indicative of how people think of him in terms of how he can coach when all this other shit isn’t going on around him, whether he’s popping off in the media, getting in fights with people, whatever. This had his fingerprint all over it, and I think we really really really saw that in Game 3 where, he’s talked a lot about his team giving layers of confidence, and being on the quote right side of arrogance, and I think we really saw that when it went to 2-1 and they seemed to understand that they were right on that line. You know, we’re up 2-0, maybe we can walk this thing to the house, then boom, this thing shocks them back to this reality. Those last 15 minutes, like Dan said, were very long, but the way they played those last 15 (minutes) was the way they played the majority of Game 2. They were on their toes, they weren’t super aggressive, but I would call them contained. They were right on that line of execution where they did what they had to do to bring this thing home. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.
CHRIS: I think you could hear the chattering in the building when it goes to a 2-1 game and everyone’s saying, "okay, we can’t get on our heels now, we can’t just cower in our defensive zone". I do think that’s true, you don’t want to just park the bus and hope for a miracle. But you do want to up your defense a little more. You’re not going to go for every single loose puck. You want to be able to buckle down and set up a good formation in your zone and trap them in the neutral zone. I’m looking at the shot chart right now and it looks like Tampa had three shots within the slot area the entire game. To Brad Shaw’s credit, not just Tortorella, two guys who know how to coach a fundamental system and play it well. Like we were saying earlier in the series, Tampa is frustrated. They’re trying to go for the knockout at any point that they can, and Columbus isn’t biting on it, they’re not overstepping, they’re not making mistakes, they’re playing a game where they’re trusting their goaltender and one of the stiffest defensive units in the NHL to help bail them out, and I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with that. I don’t think they need to overcompensate and sit back and relax. I think they made the right call by wanting to play a more locked-down defensive game at the end, and Tampa’s shots are completely spread out across the point and on the sides, just shots that Bobrovsky doesn’t have to worry a ton about. So they bet on their goaltender and it paid off.
ROB: Jacob, they seemed to know, especially down the stretch in Game 3, exactly what was coming at them, right?
JACOB: Yeah, absolutely. I was so anxious watching the third period, because it felt watching, not an if, but when, Tampa would score to tie the game. It was nerve-wracking. The Lightning threw everything they and at the Blue Jackets in that third period, and the Jackets held serve and were able to somehow, someway get out of it. Then Atkinson finally buries the empty-netter and that puts the game to bed.
ROB: Dan, how do you park the bus, without parking the bus?
DAN: You mean defensively?
DAN: The biggest thing is you can’t allow any sort of odd-man rush. You can still play aggressive with your F1 and F2, you just have to be hyper-vigilant that nothing gets behind you. Tampa’s obviously a super dangerous team with a lot of fire-power. To be honest with you, the Jackets had played enough minutes in the series at this point that I think they were pretty comfortable playing against this Tampa team. They were rolling lines. Like we just talked about, Texier was playing late in the third, Scott Harrington was playing. I think by this point in the series, the coaching staff was more trusting of their guys than maybe ever before, and I think they just knew that this team would find that balance.
CHRIS: I think from a strategy standpoint, and Dan you’ve talked about this (in Game 1), I think a difference between playing safe but not overly-safe is what you do with that third forward. I know this is getting in the weeds a bit. In Tampa’s perspective, they’re wanting to send their third forward in as deep and fast as possible. He’s going for every rebound, he’s pinching in the corner, he’s jumping into plays. But the Jackets, from this perspective, you can still send two guys in, maybe have a guy staying a little higher. But you want that third forward hovering. Like when Texier is on that 2-on-1 with Anderson, whoever that third guy, he’s not jumping in for a rebound, he’s waiting closer to the blue line for a rush to come back the other way. Maybe you start pairing a guy like Boone Jenner with Texier, who’s a bit more offensive-minded. I think you clearly see the strategy of Torts here. He’s being safe, but not being too safe, if you could say that, and just knowing how to pressure but being able to cover your ass back on defense, too, because you don’t want to get caught with three or four guys deep when you’re holding a lead.
ROB: So we’ll wrap this one up by talking about the confrontation between the two captains, Nick Foligno and Steven Stamkos that, I think, set the table for Game 4. We’ve seen Nick Foligno get testy, we’ve seen him fight, we’ve seen do whatever. In this series, he was there, he wasn’t an integral factor by any means, but I think that moment in Game 3, I think that was kind of an indicator that this was different. Right, Dan?
DAN: Not just different, but it was just another example of Columbus’ players frustrating Tampa. When you have Kucherov and Stamkos off their games, and they’re attacking Markus Nutivaara and Nick Foligno. Something’s obviously not right for Tampa. It would be akin to if like Artemi Panarin and Seth Jones were losing their minds with Alex Killorn and Erik Cernak, or something, you know if you’re Tampa… this is not good. From Columbus’ standpoint, this was just another win.
ROB: Yeah, that’s kind of what you want, right?
ROB: A team on the ropes.
DAN: Yeah, you see this sometimes with a coincidental or a fighting major, where a team will take the other team’s best players off the ice. Obviously at this point in the game it’s irrelevant, but just the idea of, you’re taking Nick Foligno off the ice, no disrespect to the captain, but that’s Steven Stamkos who’s losing his mind.
ROB: I think a good end to our Game 3 discussion is to talk about what happened after. You see the Jackets put the capper on it with the Cam Atkinson empty-netter. And at that point there’s just under two minutes left in the game, but that’s when the heads start to hang, the (poor) body language from Tampa starts to become prevalent. And the disparity between the two teams in terms of body language. I mean, we’re not psychologists here, but you can tell that Tampa is gutted. That they’re going to need the effort of a lifetime just to keep this thing going. And Columbus feels like they’ve got this thing by the neck.
CHRIS: Yeah. As much as that Stamkos sucker punch on Foligno… it says that much about Stamkos that his mind is completely elsewhere. He’s not ready to lead his team. But you got to think about all the guys on the Lightning bench. The Paquettes, the Girardis, the Cirellis, they’re looking over at their fearless leaders, one of the best players in the world and he’s throwing a sucker punch at one of the least talented captains in the NHL. I think the morale from top to bottom is probably like, “alright, we’re probably done here.” Obviously they had a few games to recuperate and get their minds right. But, again, it would have been different if it had been a Callahan or a Girardi who had thrown a punch at Foligno, but the fact that it’s Stamkos, and Kucherov is already suspended. I was just standing in the crowd, smiling, just thinking, “okay, we might actually have this.”
ROB: Jacob, so I’m downstairs in the press conference room, and the visiting team, the losing team, goes first. I don’t know how much you saw of Jon Cooper after Game 3, but the guy looks like somebody just ran over his dog. That was the look of a coach who had seen a ghost. And we’ve talked about his ‘five-alarm-fire’ comment, but he did not have any answers, any explanations. He was just, “you know, we’re in Game 4. We’re gonna get our skates on and get ready on Tuesday and see what happens.” Did that seem like a moment where you realized what the Jackets were on the cusp on doing?
"The Paquettes, the Girardis, the Cirellis, they’re looking over at their fearless leaders, one of the best players in the world and he’s throwing a sucker punch at one of the least talented captains in the NHL. I think the morale from top to bottom is probably like, 'alright, we’re probably done here.'"– Chris Pennington
JACOB: Oh yeah. It’s still kind of unreal to think about the scope of what they were able to do in four games. I did watch that press conference after Game 3, and they just looked beaten. For the first time in the series, I felt super, super confident heading into Game 4. We had the edge in terms of strategy, we were completely in their heads. Yeah, I was very optimistic, I would say, for the first time in this series.
ROB: Dan, when you watched Jon Cooper after Game 3, what did you think?
DAN: I mean I thought it was an honest assessment of his team, and it’s not the kind of thing he should have said, to be honest. It’s one of those moments where he maybe shouldn’t be so forthcoming, even though to the outside world it was clearly a ‘five-alarm-fire’. I don’t know how well that projects in the locker room, and I don’t know, I don’t want to say that at that point you knew it was over, because that’s a team (Columbus) that’s not exactly had a ton of postseason success, and Tampa’s the best team in the cap-era, possibly, so I don’t want to make that leap, but I definitely felt better about it than I did an hour before.
CHRIS: I think it also continued to put into perspective how bewildering this truly was for Tampa. If at any point we had forgotten how insane it was, just something a coach should never say, that it’s a five-alarm fire. He’s the coach of a 128-point, NHL record-setting-team.
CHRIS: For him to say that, he knows how absolutely bonkers this is. I don’t know. I just hope those are moments I never forget when I think about this series.
DAN: No answers.
ROB: Dan, I was just going to say the same thing. He looked like a guy who had run out of answers, who had run out of options. Even though he was getting his best player (Kucherov) back for Game 4, the idea of that didn’t even seem to cross his mind. I think he knew at that time that Hedman wasn’t going to play, but he knew he was going to get Kucherov back. Didn’t even register for him in that moment. It was like, “we are… we’re screwed. We’re totally screwed.”
ROB: We’ll wrap it up by going around the table here and saying in one or two sentences. What were you thinking of leaving Game 3 going into Game 4. Chris, go ahead.
CHRIS: I’m thinking, if there’s ever a team to come back from a 3-0 deficit, it’s this year’s Tampa Bay Lightning. And I am not yet counting them out.
JACOB: You’ve put yourself in this position. It’s time for them to finish it. They have every opportunity to put this series to bed.
DAN: I remember leaving Game 3 being almost proud of what this city has gone through with this team, with this franchise. Just thinking to myself how appropriate it would be to have a historically bad franchise, in terms of organizational success for the better part of two decades, only to completely shut up the entire hockey world in a week and a half in April.
ROB: Yeah, I left thinking that Game 3 were the visiting hours, and that Game 4 was the funeral.
CHRIS: Well put.
DAN: Love that.