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 so we’re back and talking Game 4, and at this point, we’ve talked about how surreal, crazy, batshit wild the first three games were. And we’re rolling into Game 4, and for the first time in their history, the Blue Jackets are on the right side of an elimination game. And they’re playing a team that, you know, rightfully, they didn’t have a chance against going into this series. Here we are after three games and they have a chance to lay the hammer. I think I expected Tampa to win a game, I didn’t expect them to win four, but a game. But I didn’t think it would be this one. Chris?
CHRIS PENNINGTON, ASSOCIATE EDITOR: At no point did I think we were actually going to win this series until the end of this game. I think it’s just a Jackets fan, I’ve been tortured so many times before, had my hopes up so many times before. Be it a 108-point season and losing in 5 games, or losing to Washington after being up 2-0, I’ve just seen so many collapses and I was okay with keeping my hopes at bay and waiting until they proved me wrong.
|Alexandre Texier (1), PPGJones (2), Dubois (1) at 1:44|
|Pierre-Luc Dubois (1)Bjorkstrand (2), Clendening (1) at 3:48|
|Steven Stamkos (1)Kucherov (1), Cirelli (1) at 8:44|
|Seth Jones (2)Atkinson (2), Duchene (4) at 6:28|
|Cedric Paquette (1)Coburn (1), Rutta (2) at 13:03|
|Brayden Point (1), PPGStamkos (1), Kucherov (2) at 17:52|
|Oliver Bjorkstrand (2)Harrington (2), Dubois (2) at 18:46|
|Artemi Panarin (1)Unassisted at 18:07|
|Alexandre Texier (2)Werenksi (4), Foligno (1) at 18:26|
|Matt Duchene (3)Savard (1), Harrington (3) at 19:51|
ROB: Dan, did it feel like, ‘not if, but when’?
DAN DUKART, STAFF WRITER: I don’t know. Like you, Rob, I thought Tampa would win a game in Columbus, and I don’t know how telling this is, but I didn’t even have tickets to this game and I convinced myself in the hours leading up to the game that, you know, there’s no way this team can sweep that team. But right before the game, I had this severe FOMO. We talked about Jon Cooper at the end of Game 3. It just didn’t seem like Tampa would be able to figure out how to get back into this series. So as pessimistic as I am, and like Chris mentioned, it’s been beaten into us, there was something about this circumstance that gave one hope.
ROB: It doesn’t take much to cattle prod the Blue Jackets fan base. But in this case, it was a bit bigger. I had friends, that I consider to be rational people, emptying their savings accounts to buy tickets for this game, doing whatever was possible to get in the building for Game 4. This was Super Bowl-esque for Columbus. The feeling going into it, it’s something that I’ll never forget, in that people would do anything that they could to get in the arena for Game 4. Leading into it, it felt like another one of those cases where, “it’s too big, it’s too big”. Jacob, did you feel like it was another case like Game 3 where they had to almost survive a bit of the hype and the hullabaloo going into this to really get settled?
JACOB NITZBERG, STAFF WRITER: So unlike the majority here, I felt that the Lightning was beaten after Game 3. Obviously, the series wasn’t over and the games had to be played, but their morale was shot. Even their head coach’s morale was shot. It felt like the Lightning was a mess and the Blue Jackets were very cohesive. And for those reasons, I had faith in them to get it done in Game 4.
ROB: Dan, was it weird that Tampa started this game so poorly with the added boost of their best player coming back in?
DAN: Yeah, but I’m not sure if I’d frame it as Tampa playing poorly as much as Columbus just playing perfectly. I mean, they got an early power-play, which had been clicking, and Texier made it 1-0 right off the bat. It just never felt like Tampa had a chance to breathe early on.
ROB: Chris, this is a big script flip wherein a game like this, having watched the Blue Jackets our entire lives, this felt like a scenario where up until that power-play, up until that goal, this was the moment where the Blue Jackets give a little bit. Maybe this is the moment where Tampa can get some air. But they didn’t.
CHRIS: I’m a long-time believer that whenever you put expectations on the Jackets, they crumble. I think this was the first time in their franchise’s history where you can close out a series. Surely they will fold into a weeping piling mess. But, like Dan said, I don’t know if Tampa played poorly off the bat, the Jackets just didn’t give them a chance to play any sort of game. They scored two and a half minutes in and then a minute after that. I think after the second goal, I turned to my brother and said, half-jokingly, half-not, “are we the greatest team of all-time?” From every other experience before, it was bewildering to see them not only take on the expectations of a close-out game but exceeding them, and they didn’t take their foot off the gas pedal.
ROB: I think that was a nice surprise. It was very refreshing to see that the moment wasn’t too big for the Blue Jackets here.
DAN: Absolutely. And like we’ve talked about in the prior three games, fair or not, this is a fan-base that had been damaged by promise in the past. At this point, the team almost just felt like a team of destiny. Jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes, if anything it felt like the moment was too big for Tampa.
"At this point, the team almost just felt like a team of destiny. Jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes, if anything it felt like the moment was too big for Tampa."– Dan Dukart
ROB: Wow. So Texier scores the 1-0 goal and everything is breaking right for Columbus, and then a minute later PL Dubois scores, banking the puck off Andrei Vasilevskiy’s foot, and I remember watching the game on replay and hearing the NBC crew. You have Pierre McGuire talking about how Jon Cooper has to do something, has to infuse himself in this somehow to change the fortunes of his team. He has to call a timeout, has to change goalies, he has to do something because it just felt like that was the moment, just three minutes into the game down 2-0, you have to play your cards, if you have them, and he didn’t. Either he trusted his team, or I don’t know what it was. Was it trust, was it panic? It seemed weird to me that at that moment, Jon Cooper folded his hands and let shit happen.
JACOB: Yeah, I agree. To many people watching, including me, it felt like Cooper was coaching for his job. Despite the incredible regular season, there were high, high expectations for Tampa. They got punched in the mouth by Columbus, three times in a row now. And now they’re in their fourth battle, must-win, and his players are looking for any guidance, any sliver of hope, because they’re getting their shit kicked in, again. And he’s just not there for them.
CHRIS: I think at some point, he was hoping that the 128-point team would just show up. And he bet on himself. And I think the chips had already fallen at that point.
"it felt like Cooper was coaching for his job. Despite the incredible regular season, there were high, high expectations for Tampa. They got punched in the mouth by Columbus, three times in a row now. And now they’re in their fourth battle, must-win, and his players are looking for any guidance, any sliver of hope, because they’re getting their shit kicked in, again. - Jacob Nitzberg
DAN: Not to beat a dead horse, but at what point does this Tampa team face adversity? It’s late in Game 1 in the first round of the playoffs where Tampa felt, maybe for the first time all season, that they had been truly punched in the mouth. This isn’t a knock on Jon Cooper, but his team was so successful that a two or three-game slide for the Blue Jackets was something that could be rectified, that could be handled. This iteration of the Lightning just didn’t have that same type of experience that season.
ROB: Dan, I thought about this a lot. As the series begins to take its toll, from Game 1 through Game 3, aside from the first period of Game 1, it was really difficult for Tampa to build on anything. It was a laborious effort for them to generate high-quality scoring chances, much less score a goal. And here they are, at the drop of the hat in Game 4, looking at the end of their season, they’re down 2-0 just like that. How hard is it for a team to say, “man, we can’t even get a chance.”
DAN: Yeah, it’s got to be incredibly demoralizing especially after having a season like that. I just don’t think they had gone through the trials that Columbus certainly had faced. You know, I think it’s a little bit too easy to attribute everything to the idea that Columbus had been playing playoff games for a month and Tampa hadn’t for three or four months. Maybe how pronounced the difference between the two is up for debate. Aside from that first period in Game 1, Columbus never appeared out of their comfort zone, and conversely aside from that period, Tampa never seemed to be in theirs.
CHRIS: Dan, to that point, I think the Jackets, as funny as it sounds, were just used to getting up after they’ve gotten knocked down, and Tampa just hadn’t gotten knocked down enough this year to know what it feels like.
CHRIS: If I’m looking at this correctly, Tampa had gone on just two ‘losing streaks’ the entire regular season, and both were two-game losing streaks. So this was the first time in a calendar year that they had lost three games in a row, and it’s literally a logical fallacy in their mind, the situation they’re in. It does not compute that they’re in a spot that they’ve lost more than two games in a row.
ROB: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too. What’s going through their minds where they’re in this situation. I wonder at what point this actually computed for them that their season could be over if they don’t win this game, if they don’t come back in this series. I would love to be a fly on the wall. It didn’t seem like they had that epiphany until it was too late that this could be the end of their record-setting season. At what point did this get real for them?
DAN: To be honest with you, when Columbus scored the first goal in this game, that was a dagger for me. Not that the game was over, but I could have easily seen a scenario coming into this game where, you know, Tampa’s backs are up against the wall and they put up two quick ones in the first period. Basically the exact script, but flipped in Tampa’s favor. That wouldn’t have surprised me one bit.
ROB: In Games 2-4, Columbus never chased it. That’s such a position of strength.
DAN: It’s a little anecdotal, maybe, but it always seemed like whenever Columbus had a chance or needed to score, they did. They get a power-play opportunity early in Game 4. Score. That’s the kind of play that didn’t happen for this team for what seemed like forever.
ROB: What blows my mind is, less than a month before the Jackets are dismantling one of the greatest teams of all time, this is a team that was getting its shit kicked in by the Edmonton Oilers in a game that they should have won, they needed to win, in order to get into the playoffs. It caused a come to Jesus dinner meeting a day later and in a different city. The contrast between the two never fail to blow my mind. Three weeks ago this team was in shambles.
JACOB: That Edmonton game was 19 days before Game 1. After that Edmonton game, the Jackets ripped off five wins in a row, lost one, then closed out the season with two more wins. They came in hot, everything was clicking. Honestly, thank God they lost that game in Edmonton, because that was probably – not even probably – that was the turning point for this season for the Blue Jackets.
ROB: Oh, yeah. I don’t know how the rest of us thought but I felt in that moment as they get washed by the Oilers that this is catastrophic. They’ve made these moves and Matt Duchene doesn’t look like he fits, Ryan Dzingel, we haven’t said his name once in this entire series until right now. These pieces don’t seem to fit, this isn’t seeming to work. And they kind of just took all that in a bag and threw it in a dumpster before this whole thing started, and were able to almost forget about all of the work they put in for the prior six months. Once they got in, something was completely different. They changed the way they played, yeah, but there was something more than that. In November, their starting goalie walked out on them and got chewed out on the tarmac. They had some abysmal stretches, some horrific losses. Then this come to Jesus dinner in Vancouver where they aired out their grievances. And all of a sudden they’re able to flip it and be a unit in more ways than one that takes down a juggernaut.
DAN: Just the ups and downs that a team has to go through in the regular season, I think we’ve learned, can mean a ton. Just looking at last year’s champions. I mean the obvious one to cherry-pick is the St. Louis Blues, the most recent Stanley Cup Champions, who were in the bottom of the NHL’s standings in January and turned it around. It’s not going to be like that always, obviously, but I just think that when it gets down to it, teams that can lean on each other and have experience playing different types of games can figure out how to win in different types of ways. Columbus just jelled at the right time, and it took some time for the trades to play itself out, but this was a team that could play however you wanted.
CHRIS: Dan, I agree with everything you just said. The stretch they went on coming out of Edmonton and into the playoffs, that’s the kind of stuff that 30 For 30, you know, if hockey was more prevalent in the United States. Maybe we could have had a cool documentary on this upset. This is a team that, you gotta imagine in that players-only meeting in Vancouver, they’re saying, “guys, are we done being a joke of a franchise to the hockey world?” This is a team that’s going on 20 years of never winning a playoff series. At a very amateur level I’ve been in locker rooms, sometimes all it takes is one line to get things going. I don’t know. I just think they were tired of the outside world saying things like they were going get sold off to another market and decided to do something about it.
DAN: One real quick point. I hope as time goes on, Blue Jackets fans will collectively come to respect that Panarin and Bobrovsky were always leaving after the season. But even though they knew individually that they were going to playing elsewhere the next season, this was still in some ways a bit of an audition. It’s not like either of them have had sterling playoff success. Panarin was on the Blackhawks for two years, and in both years, they failed to get out of the first round. And Bobrovsky’s poor playoff history has been well documented. So even with that “distraction”, there was still plenty of internal motivation for all players to come together – now – and that come to Jesus dinner in Vancouver might have been it.
ROB: Right. So we’re in this Game 4, it’s 2-0 early in the first period, and it feels like the avalanche is rolling down the mountain here. But Tampa comes back midway through, Steven Stamkos scores to make it 2-1. It’s that cold water moment where, hang on a minute, this isn’t over yet. I think a lot of us, even in the building thought, this is over. But as we see in this game, Game 4 was the biggest rollercoaster of all of them – maybe even more than Game 1. For me, Game 4 was in the balance, it was out there for the taking, maybe more than Game 1 was. Jacob what do you think about that?
JACOB: Yeah, I think that the Blue Jackets had the advantage of playing in a raucous, insane Nationwide Arena that was incredibly hungry to see the Blue Jackets finally obtain this great milestone. I don't want to say it just felt different because that's so cliché. But, I think there was a sense around the team that this was going to be a game where success was going to come a little easier, based on the beat-down they had given them in the first three games. I think they had the formula, and they just had to put the pen to paper.
ROB: With Tampa being the team that they are, having all the information, knowing exactly what's happened in Games 1, 2, and 3, and knowing what they need to fix, you would think Game 4 is a game Tampa should win, right, Dan?
DAN: Yeah. But on the other hand, if you just look at the changes that Tampa's management has made in the 10, 11 months since these games, they've made some not-so-subtle changes to their roster to make it a more difficult team to play against in the playoffs. They've added Zach Bogosian, Pat Maroon, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman. These are not exactly guys that are in the same breadth as Kucherov, Stamkos, and Point. And that's kind of the point, right? Oh, that's a pun. Not intended. I think that you're right that Tampa had all the information they needed to make the changes required to win a game. I just don't know if their roster composition and lack of experience in this given season playing against teams after getting punched in the mouth would allow for it.
ROB: That's a good point. Chris, what do you think about that? A team that really hadn't gotten punched in the mouth all season long has now got three right hooks to the chops and they're in the process of taking another one. This game goes to 3-1 in the second period when Seth Jones scores and the Blue Jackets are back in business. I think the end of the second period was a big test for Columbus to hang in there. This was the point, with a 3-1 lead and half the game to go, you're going to get everything they've got.
CHRIS: Yeah. When Point walked in and scored that tying goal with less than two minutes to go, I sat there and was like, "Oh my gosh. They might just turn around and do a reverse sweep here." I knew what Tampa was capable of, and at that moment if the Blue Jackets didn't get this game under control, I could see Tampa winning four straight. If Oliver Bjorkstrand doesn't score that goal immediately after, I would not have bet on the Blue Jackets in the third period. If you watch the replay of Point after that goal, he's going nuts and the whole Tampa bench has life. For Bjorkstrand to slap that in, I will venture to say that saved the series because it's one of the best teams ever on the other end and they have a whole period, they finally tied the game, and now they have momentum. It would have been a lot different of a third period if Bjorkstrand had not done that.
ROB: That was their moment. If we wind it back a moment to the first period, Cam Atkinson scores, or thinks he scores, on the power play on a put-back off the end boards and Columbus thinks they've got a 3-1 lead. Jon Cooper, rightfully so, challenges the play on the offside on Zach Werenski's stick handling on the left point. It comes out as offside by a millimeter, and the call is overturned. Jon Cooper, in that moment, tries to manufacture this moment where he's stomping around on the bench and screaming at his team. He's trying to manufacture that energy, and his team didn't have it. Tampa had to see something actually happen for them, and coming back from 3-1 down to make it 3-3 late in the second period was, at that moment, it for them. Like you said, on that long-delayed penalty, you have this wizard-like sequence by Panarin through the neutral zone to get into the zone then make a play across to Dubois, then you have the clean-up at the net mouth. That felt like a foot to the neck. That was, "We've seen your best. We've felt your best. But f--- you."
"On that long-delayed penalty, you have this wizard-like sequence by Panarin through the neutral zone to get into the zone then make a play across to Dubois, then you have the clean-up at the net mouth. That felt like a foot to the neck. That was, "We've seen your best. We've felt your best. But f--- you."– Rob Mixer
CHRIS: Yeah, I think that's a great way to put it. Tampa had finally resurfaced and they were ready to get their juices flowing again. Columbus just beat them back down to the ground and said, "This series is over." I think that won the game. You look at the third period and Bobrovsky was phenomenal, but I think the third period was entirely Tampa relying on their superstars to make something happen. I think the team game was completely out of the door at that point. It's so fun to think about Bjorkstrand crushing all the hopes they had.
ROB: For 90 seconds, Dan, Tampa had life. They had to work so hard to get that energy, and it lasted 90 seconds. It's got to be a gut punch.
DAN: Yeah, that's just it. Like I said earlier, Columbus found a way to score when they needed to most. This might have been the ultimate example of that. The Blue Jackets said, "We will see your two-goal momentum swing, and raise you one demoralizing delayed penalty for a minute type of goal. A rebound goal." That whole sequence reminded me of the Game 3 Duchene power-play goal, where you can just feel it coming for a minute at a time. Anticipation's building, the crowd can feel it, everyone can sense what's coming. Like Rob said, as soon as Bjorkstrand scored, it was a gut punch.
ROB: In the third period, it's a 4-3 game. We've talked about goaltending off and on throughout this series here, but I think in the third period, Jacob, this is when we really saw how good Sergei Bobrovsky was. That third period was his best work.
JACOB: Absolutely. We didn't really talk about Bob through Games 2 and 3, but I do want to touch on it here. Coming into this series, he was one of the big question marks. He had that meltdown early in the season, and his playoff track record wasn't the greatest. However, he's one of the biggest reasons the Blue Jackets were able to take this series. His consistent play starting in Game 1 all the way through Game 4 was outstanding, especially in this third period. You knew Tampa was going to push hard because if they didn't score in the next 20 minutes, their vaunted regular season and supposed Stanley Cup that was just going to be handed to them on a silver platter is gone. Bobrovsky was outstanding.
ROB: Dan, what did you think of Bob in the third period?
DAN: He made two huge saves. Tampa had a huge chance with four minutes left. Paquette was fed by Cirelli right on the doorstep, and Bob made a ridiculous save. After that, it was kind of like Game 3 where you could just sense that the way the Blue Jackets are playing and the way Bobrovsky is playing, as long as they don't give up any leaky chances, they'll be okay.
CHRIS: It was world-class. It was some Jimmy Craig kind of stuff at the end of that game.
ROB: It was one of the better goaltending efforts that the franchise has ever seen, going down the stretch of that game. They were holding on. Not that Tampa was really generating chances, but I think everyone knew it didn't take a great chance for Tampa to score.
DAN: Bobrovsky didn't really get the credit because they gave up three goals. It's not the kind of clinic that you normally think of from a great goaltending performance, but like Jacob was saying earlier, it was lost how spectacular Bobrovsky was in 11 of the 12 periods here.
ROB: Oh yeah. He was great. Then you get down the stretch, and Tampa pulls their goalie with just over two minutes left, and I think it got really, really real for everyone. You've got to just finish this thing off. It never felt, for me at least, that it was going to end 4-3. It felt like something was going to happen in the final two minutes where one team puts their stamp on it. It was one of the craziest empty-netters we've ever seen, starting all the way back inside their own end to break the puck out. Josh Anderson wins a footrace, wins a battle, and a bounce goes the Blue Jackets' way.
You have the guy you would expect to be there on the back side, Panarin, to basically put this thing away. It felt like that was how it was supposed to be, to have him put the nail in the coffin, but it also felt like that was the kind of empty-netter that they had to score to get this thing to the house. It wasn't going to be a shoot the length of the ice kind of thing. It wasn't going to be an uncontested rush the other way off a bounce. It was going to be something crazy and wild, like that. What were you guys thinking in that moment where that puck goes in the net with a minute and 50 seconds left to make it 5-3? It was the loudest that building has ever been and maybe ever will be, and it was the release of 20 years of frustration from fans.
CHRIS: You see most empty-netters coming. It's not really a surprise when it happens. In hindsight, I think that's what made this one so special. You have the history of the franchise and how hard they worked in the series, and then the puck's bouncing around everywhere and you're on the edge of your seat, and then in one swift moment, Panarin launches it top shelf and the building loses its collective mind. It went from 0 to 100 because nobody saw it coming. Rob, I feel like you said it perfectly. It was this ecstasy of all this pain from 20 years just washed away in a single moment. It felt like this sigh of relief from so many nightmares that we've experienced. Instantly, I burst into tears. I don't think I knew the game was over at that point. Not until Texier's empty-netter did I actually calm down a bit and think we'd won it, but it was a pretty ridiculous moment.
DAN: That's really well said by both of you. It's hard to think of empty net goals on the Mount Rushmore of Blue Jackets' goals, but it might be the enduring image of the series, at least for me. Not just Panarin scoring the goal, but then Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, and Nick Foligno all jumping on this pile in the corner. For me, that's going to be the lasting image.
ROB: It was the empty net goal they had to score. There wouldn't have been another way to do it, right?
CHRIS: Yeah, I think the way that game closed out felt like poetic justice. During the whole season, everyone is ripping on Bread and Bob for causing some internal and external drama with their decisions and all this and that. In that last ten minutes of the game, they're the ones that help the Jackets put it away and give them their first-ever series win. It was fun to see it come full circle.
JACOB: Absolutely. I think perhaps a microcosm of the entire series happened right before Panarin got the puck. Stamkos actually had the puck on his stick. It was rolling, and it was bouncing a little bit, but he just desperately threw it somewhere, and it just happened to land on Panarin's stick. Obviously, he was trying to do something with the puck that wasn't that. Tampa tried their one strategy all four games, and it just didn't work. Any of the games.
ROB: Yeah. It didn't work at all. It was one of the more improbable upsets, let alone sweeps, in modern sports history. 30 points of separation in the regular season, a virtual layup for a team that was going to waltz its way to the final, and they meet a team that was as stubborn as we will probably ever see. What can you guys take away from that series in terms of both what Columbus did, and what it validated in terms of just giving yourself a chance?
JACOB: I think it's important that everyone bought into John Tortorella's playing style. That was probably one of the biggest reasons that the Blue Jackets won. They were a cohesive unit, both players and coaches. They all had this one goal in mind: aggressive forechecking, limiting odd-man rushes, blocking shooting and passing lanes. Everyone was there and everyone bought in, and that's why this year, even with all the injuries, the Blue Jackets were still able to find moderate success because they bought into the system.
CHRIS: I will forever be grateful that the Blue Jackets went all in at the trade deadline. I think it's something that has given me a lifelong memory. At the end of the day, it is just sports, and it's not life or death, so to go all-in when you can, and have some fun with it, hundreds of thousands of people will have the memories of a lifetime from getting to watch that series take place. It was because they decided to go all-in. They didn't say, "We're going to stock up for the draft next year." Or, "We're going to buckle down and rebuild." They said, "We're going to do this." I still think that was a Stanley Cup-winning team in most other years in NHL history, but I'm not, for a second, regretful that they went all in. I will be thankful for the rest of my life that they did.
DAN: I think normally I'm kind of the pragmatic, let's build towards something later type, but I admit I even wrote a piece at the trade deadline and my headline was "Damn the torpedoes." Even I was all in. I think in professional sports, at a certain point, you almost need to give your fans hope. If you can't give your fans wins, you have to give them hope. This is an organization that hasn't done a ton of winning, and although it was shortlived, I don't think that anybody regrets the decision that management made to go all-in here. Like you guys said, this rollercoaster of the playoffs, the historical nature of it all made it totally worth it.
ROB: Yeah. It was truly iconic and truly memorable for all of us. Guys, thank you for your insight and your memories. Thanks for taking part in this. 'Preciate ya.
Photo(s): Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports