By Jim Bleyer
The Tampa Bay Lightning four days ago were overwhelming favorites to win hockey’s cherished Stanley Cup.
Not anymore. The eighth and last seed Columbus Blue Jackets blew the doors off the Lightning in the last five periods of hockey and lead 2-0 in the best of seven series.
And those wins were on Lightning home ice. To move on to the second round, Tampa must win at least two games in Columbus and four of five. A tall order, even for the team that tied the National Hockey League record for most wins in a season.
As far as Vegas is concerned, oddsmakers give the Lightning a 7.5 percent chance to win the Stanley Cup compared to 35 percent just before the playoffs began. More telling: moneypuck.com puts the chances of Tampa making it to the second round at an anemic 28.5 percent.
Maybe the players should be polishing their Callaways.
To make matters more dire than the rink disadvantage: the league’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov cheap shotted a Columbus defenseman in the closing minutes of the second game 5-1 blowout. It was unnecessary, intentional, and occurred with the game out of reach.
Usually such tactics are reserved for a member of the team’s goon squad and not its most reliable scorer. Kucherov has been suspended for Sunday’s Game 3.
The reason for the Lightning’s big fail is something they cannot mend anytime soon: coach Jon Cooper’s dismal underachieving playoff record. In this series he is being clearly outcoached by former Lightning coach John Tortorella who led Tampa to its only Stanley Cup in 2004.
The Lightning are the 10th team in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs to blow a three-goal lead in their first game of a postseason. Only two of the previous nine recovered to win the series.
Kucherov’s lack of discipline in a critical situation equates to poor coaching or lack of it. Cooper said he didn’t see Kucherov’s hit when he met the media after the game. What was he even doing at the game?
And the Lightning were goalless for a solid 87 minutes, 10 seconds. It’s a carbon copy of the 2017-18 season when in the Eastern Conferences finals against Washington, the Lightning did not score in the final 159 minutes, 27 seconds, almost eight periods of hockey.
Hockey bloggers and commentators are buzzing about the Lightning having no answers for a zone defense and a lack of forechecking. Translation: the coaching staff is clueless and inept.
The Lightning’s three 40-goal scorers: Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point total no goals and no assists in six periods of hockey. The defense has been shaky; even All-Star Victor Hedman has been victimized.
After being undressed by Columbus, Hedman skated over to the Blue Jacket bench and had the temerity to taunt, “ You guys were up 2-0 last season. How did it end up?” (Columbus then lost four straight to Washington). Laughingly, he said it to Riley Nash, a player that wasn’t on the Blue Jacket roster last year.
Talking smack when your team is getting its ass kicked and an out-of-control key player being suspended spells mismanagement by the coaching staff.
Cooper panicked after the first game when the Lightning blew a 3-0 lead and lost 4-3 in regulation. He called off a planned practice, instead giving the team an off day. How could this possibly be beneficial?
Cooper is a very good leader during the regular season but opposing coaches have his number in the playoffs when it counts. The Lightning clearly have the best skaters of any NHL team but its weakness prowls behind the bench.
Following the Lightning’s 2018 playoff elimination, Tampa Bay Beat wrote The Case for Firing Jon Cooper.
Instead, team owner Jeff Vinik chose to fire two Cooper subordinates, a totally inconsequential scapegoating move. Then during the past season, Vinik inexplicably extended the contract for a coach whose playoff record is dismal considering the personnel bequeathed to him.
We doubt Vinik and the fan base are sufficiently delighted with regular season victories. Our case for a changing of the guard is stronger than ever unless someone can perform the Heimlich Maneuver on this choking coach.