"Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”
So goes the question that Steve Rogers asked Tony Stark in the first Avenger’s movie all the way back in 2012. Stark’s sharp response became one of the film’s most memorable lines.
“Genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist.”
The immediacy of the retort is what made it so savage. Stark didn’t miss a beat and replied in a cocky, deadpan manner. In an instant, he reminded Rogers, a gigantic dweeb from the 1940s, that the Iron Man suit wasn’t a crutch, but a monument to his intellect. The delivery itself, though, showed that his identity was centered around his confidence.
Folks, the Columbus Blue Jackets have stripped away the Tampa Bay Lightning’s proverbial Iron Man suit in the last five periods of this series. The Bolts are now tasked with figuring out who they are without their powers.
Beating Tampa, the regular season juggernaut that eviscerated their regular season schedule to the tune of 62 wins, looked on paper to be an insurmountable task for the Columbus Blue Jackets, who trudged along for much of the season, with each player on their roster struggling mightily at times. Through two games, though, they’ve flipped the script.
In Game 1, they fought back from a 3-0 deficit, deflating the sold-out Amalie Arena crowd. Tampa’s response? Continue playing their game.
In Game 2, that game never found its footing, and the Blue Jackets handed Tampa the worst home loss they’ve had all season.
In Game 3, they’ll be forced to make adjustments, both based on the Blue Jackets’ suffocating style and the fact that they’ll be missing one – and possibly two – of the best players in the world.
The Lightning are not just battling their opponent – or a raucous Columbus crowd tonight – but a full-blown identity crisis, too.
“Have we faced a ton of adversity this year? We haven’t,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “I’ve been in this league for six years and it hasn’t gone any easier than it has this year.”
“This is a five-alarm fire.”
His team knows it, too. Just look at the end of Game 2.
When the Blue Jackets won Game 2 by a 5-1 final, they didn’t just dunk on Tampa to give them their worst home loss of the season. They also handed Tampa their first set of back-to-back regulation losses since November. But it gets worse for Tampa.
Nikita Kucherov, who had the best offensive season for any NHL player in the last 23 years, has been held scoreless through the series’ first two games, and lost his cool at the end of Game 2. He won’t play in Game 3 after a well-earned suspension. The Blue Jackets turned him from Marcel Dionne into Zac Rinaldo.
The 17 penalty minutes Kucherov received on that suspension-worthy hit didn’t even make up half of his team’s total in Game 2. Their 38 penalty minutes are the most they’ve had in a game since February of *2017*.
Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos combined to score a jaw-dropping 318 points this season. They’ve been held scoreless in this series, and Point was so frustrated that he started a fight with Zach Werenski in the first period of a 1-0 game in Game 2. Going by listed weights, Point was punching 53 pounds above his weight class.
Victor Hedman, the reigning Norris Trophy winner and the guy who many in the hockey world regard as the best defenseman in the world, got dog-walked by David Savard in Game 1, and tried to trash-talk Riley Nash, a fourth-liner mired in a career-worst year, right after Nash scored a goal. It didn’t go well.
Victor Hedman: "What happened last year?"
Riley Nash: "...I was in Boston."
Riley Nash for president. https://t.co/8BIBR4RIx0
— 1st Ohio Battery (@1stOhioBattery) April 13, 2019
Again, this is one of the game’s best defenseman resorting to cringeworthy trash talk. Not only was Nash not part of the Columbus loss to Washington, but “remember when you lost to Washington in last year’s playoffs?” doesn’t mean much coming from a guy who *actually* lost to Washington in last year’s playoffs. Yikes!
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had a .981 save percentage in three regular season games against Columbus (103 saves on 106 shots) has surrendered nine goals on just 53 shots on this series, good for a .830 save percentage through two games in this series.
For the first time all season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are dealing with real adversity. That’s compounded by the fact that they’re looking at hitting the golf courses if they can’t figure things out quickly. Funny enough, the ones who put them in that situation pulled their way out of a similar situation in order to even get here.
Columbus came damn close to missing out on the playoffs entirely after going all-in at the trade deadline. Matt Duchene struggled to fit in with his new club. Just about every forward on this team has gone through some kind of a prolonged slump. Sergei Bobrovsky looked like a shell of himself for the season’s first four months. John Tortorella had the forward lines in a Vitamix basically all season long.
And yet, all of those struggles and frustrations have hardened the Blue Jackets. A bubble team mired by inconsistencies has turned into a death machine of their own kind, suffocating the most high-flying offense in the NHL and bringing relentless pressure and effort in any situation.
Things weren’t easy for Columbus against Tampa in the regular season, getting outscored 17-3 in three games. Now, the shoe’s on the other foot – Columbus has outscored the Bolts 9-1 in the last five periods of this series. Turns out John Tortorella knew what he was talking about in his rousing Game 1 pregame speech.
Forget about skills, forget about x’s and o’s, it’s a fucking mindset.
That mindset – and the identity that comes along with it – has been conspicuously absent for Tampa Bay so far in this series.
The team that carved through the regular season like a damn lightsaber through butter has suddenly found that things aren’t easy anymore. Now, they’re faced with a question: without two key players in their lineup – and against an opponent that seemingly has their number – do they try to stick to their game? Can they do that without two of their stars?
Or, do they, for the first time, make major tactical adjustments? Would those adjustments fix the problems or just create more turmoil? Is it a choice they have to make, regardless?
Nobody’s writing off Tampa Bay in this series just yet. Between their historic regular season and Columbus’s collapse last year against Washington, it’d be foolish to assume this one’s over. Still, Braden Holtby ain’t walking through that door. The Lightning don’t have a series-changing x-factor to turn to.
Instead, they've found themselves bogged down by poor special teams play, thin-skinned trash-talking, stars resorting to cheap shots and a cacophony of home-ice boos.
The Columbus Blue Jackets haven't just done damage to Tampa on the scoreboard, they've taken a sledgehammer to the Bolts' entire psyche. Now all that's left to do is keep on hammering.